Chapter 26 Learning Objectives
Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:
- Discuss the major theories of ethics about what makes acts right or wrong, and understanding what their flaws (and good points) are.
- Employ the principles meant to keep the good points of each theory, and to avoid their flaws.
Watch this video or scan the QR code to learn more about ethics.
The actual doing of ethics or moral philosophy — the search for principles that characterize and determine right action, duty, obligations, good values, good people, wrong actions, evil, etc. — as opposed to the previous kind of activity of talking about the nature and logic of the search and the concepts involved in it, is what philosophers and university philosophy teachers today call normative ethics. Since this activity is what most people call simply ethics, I will dispense with the adjective normative.
It is useful to consider ethical theories about what kinds of actions are right or wrong in two types of categories to begin with: (1) theories that right actions are those actions whose consequences create or allow the greatest amount of good (or least amount of evil, or greatest balance of good over evil), and (2) other theories — any theory which holds that what is right is not dependent upon how much good (or how little evil) is created, but on other things — things which the theory will explain or describe. At first look, theories of the first sort — call them, say, “good-requiring” theories — perhaps seem the most obviously reasonable, but let me give some examples of cases of the second sort so that you can see what plausibility they themselves have. People who would be more inclined to hold one of the second kind of theories would be those who might follow a set of rules like the ten commandments, regardless of the consequences following those rules might bring, or people who believe that you should always obey the law, even if you think a law is a bad one or that some harm or evil will result in following it. (“If you think a law is a bad one,” they usually say, “then get it changed” — as if you could — “but until it is changed, you ought to obey it.”) Examples of other kinds of principles of this second sort are the Golden Rule in either of its forms — (1) do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or (2) do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you — and the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s principle that you should only do what you could will that everyone should do (popularly usually expressed rhetorically as “What if everybody did that?”). None of these rules have any reference to whether following them will turn out to give the greatest good in the long run or not, though in some cases I think it is assumed (though probably incorrectly) that using them properly will bring about the greatest amount of good or presupposes (as in using Kant’s principle or the Golden Rule) that you will choose the alternative that will.
I will call theories of the first sort “good-requiring” and those of the second sort “formal” or “procedural” rule theories, this latter because following the procedure or form of the rule, not looking at consequences, makes the determination for you of what is right or not. (For those who might take a philosophy course, philosophers call “good-requiring” theories Consequentialist (also called ‘teleological’) principles and theories of ethics, “formal rule” theories and Non-consequentialist (also called deontological) principles and theories of ethics, but I shall not use those somewhat foreboding and generally undescriptive terms here.)
These are any principles which say an act is right if and only if, of all the acts that are possible for the person in question, its consequences create the most good, least evil, or greatest balance of good over evil. The following are three categories of good requiring principles, derived from their different answers to the question of who ought to most benefit from the good that they require to be done:
(1) the agent performing the act? — the theory called “egoism”;
(2) everyone other than the agent performing the act? — altruism; or,
(3) everyone; or at least the majority or greatest number? — utilitarianism.
Also, consider the question of what things are good. There have been serious attempts to show that there is ultimately only one good — one and only one final good toward which all other goods are only a means, but which it itself is an end. This, it is argued, is pleasure or happiness or contentment. (Though these three words perhaps mean somewhat different things, what I am interested in saying about theories claiming that any or all of them, or other similar things, are the only ultimate good will apply equally to all; so any specific distinctions between them will be unimportant here.) Such a theory of the ultimate goal and value of life — joy, contentment, happiness, pleasure, etc. — is called a hedonistic one.
Now, except for categorizing theories, the names of the theories are not important, though the contents of the theories are, since many hold or have held various forms of these theories. We can have “egoistic hedonistic” theories of ethics —Ethical hedonism theories that say everyone should act for his or her own greatest happiness (not just good, but the specific good happiness; we can have “altruistic hedonistic” theories of ethics — theories that you should act for other people’s happiness; and we can have utilitarian hedonistic theories of ethics such as those of John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham which hold that one should always act to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And, apart from hedonism, there can be egoistic, altruistic, or utilitarian theories designating for whom one ought to increase those good or rewarding benefits that include things besides happiness or pleasure, in case happiness or pleasure is not the only ultimate good.
I will say nothing much about altruism in the sense that I use it here, meaning a principle requiring one always to ignore one’s own good and to think only of the good of others. That is because I think everyone owes themself, simply because they too are a human being, some consideration; the question is simply how much. Why should other people, just because they are not you, be considered by you to be more important than you, or why should their good or happiness be considered by you to be of more value than yours! And why should you consider, as this theory of ethics would require, another person to be of more worth than you allow them to consider themself! The theory or principle, as stated here, would hold that you must always take their good into consideration but they should never do so; and they must always place your welfare first, but you should never do so.
Let me first consider one particular argument given for ethical egoism — the principle that one ought to do what will bring about one’s own greatest good, least bad, or greatest balance of good over bad — and for ethical egoistic hedonism — the same theory but where good is considered specifically to be pleasure or happiness, and bad is considered to be pain or sorrow, etc. This is the argument derived from their psychological counterparts, psychological egoism and psychological hedonism, psychological theories which say that people only can act for their own (perceived) greatest interests or happiness. And since one can only be obligated to act in a way that one can act, these theories about how people do and must act leads directly to the ethical theories about how they should act. The contention is that since people are psychologically required to act in ways they perceive to be in their own best interests (or that will give them the most pleasure), that is the (only) way they can ethically be required to act; to require anything else ethically of people is to require the impossible and so is not a really legitimate, realistic, or meaningful ethical principle.
Criticism: It is true one can only be morally obligated to do what is possible; but it is not true that it is impossible to act unselfishly. And in many cases, it is not even difficult to act unselfishly. If this is the case, as I will argue shortly, psychological egoism and hedonism, since they are false theories of human nature, cannot justify ethical egoism or hedonism, theories about human obligation. People do, in fact, act altruistically, at least some people do, at least some of the time. People can act unselfishly; many often do. Altruism, in the sense of taking the welfare of others into consideration, and even sometimes putting it above one’s own welfare — whether that welfare is in terms of happiness or some other good — is not an impossible human attribute. People can and do act in regard for others, act in ways that they know or believe will cause less good to themselves than they could otherwise get; but they act that way because they know or believe that it will cause more good for others and that sometimes that is better or more important.
Many teachers, for example, have done extra work for their students’ benefit, not for their own benefit. Many people do extra things for others even when it is an inconvenience to themselves. Parents, for example, often do unselfish things for their children. They may work harder so that their kids have the extra opportunities occasioned by greater wealth; they may give their children their time and energy to teach them, chauffeur them, chaperon them, or to listen to them about matters of little consequence or interest in themselves, even though it may not cause the parent any great joy or pleasure and even though it may be boring, tedious, or sacrificial of their time or energy that would otherwise be spent on personally fonder projects.
And any argument that tries to show these people believe they will get more pleasure out of acting altruistically and are therefore really acting in, and because of, their own self-interest after all, shows little understanding of human nature in such matters. Of course, there are selfish acts done by people for others so that they themselves will receive a benefit or honor or feel better or have their consciences assuaged, but not all acts are like that, and not all people act selfishly like that. In many cases of altruistic acts or of self-sacrificing utilitarian acts there is no particular benefit expected or perceived to be gained by the agent performing the act. And if one does get pleasure out of an unselfish act, that pleasure is usually the result and not the cause of one’s doing something selflessly. Furthermore, in cases where there is some pleasure for the agent, it is usually hardly sufficient pleasure to have balanced the amount of selfish pleasure sacrificed.
(More about this shortly.) To repeat, not all acts have much to do with the agent’s expecting to receive any or sufficiently rewarding pleasure for his or her deeds; nor do they have much to do with the agent’s actually receiving any or sufficient benefit for them; and even when some pleasure does also result for the agent, it is just that — an accompanying result — and not the cause of his or her performing the act.
For example, when you root for a sports hero, a movie hero, kidnap victim, politician, or whomever, you do it because you want him or her to triumph, and then you feel good if he or she does. Unless you have placed a bet on them, you do not root for them so that you will feel good. Why should you feel good about their winning if you did not already have some sort of concern or feeling for them! Why ever root for the underdog, since by doing so you are more likely to end up feeling bad — underdogs usually lose. Why not root for the kidnapper rather than the victim if all you are concerned about is how you feel! Why, in fact, root for anyone else at all!
In terms, not of caring about other people, but just wanting or feeling obligated to do things, I think there is a similar situation. The desire or perception of duty arises first, and the pleasure, if any, follows from successfully doing what you want or believe you should. I think that in general we get pleasure out of doing the things we want to because we were already in the mood to do them and were able to; we do not do them because we anticipate some sort of pleasure resulting from doing them. The mood or desire generally has to come first, or there will not even be any pleasure resulting from doing the act.
Now there are some cases or times we do things or want things for the pleasure we anticipate from doing or having them. For example, one may want to get drunk just to see if it is as great as others often say; one may want to go to a party, not because one is in a partying mood, but because one feels he or she may have a good time if they go; one may want to have sex with another just to see whether it will be good. These cases do not always give much happiness though — not with the kind of frequency that doing or getting something you really already want to do or to get does. Further, these cases simply are rarer than going to a party because you are in a partying mood, getting drunk because you have the urge to drink or to “feel no pain”, or having sex simply because you really want to with the person you are with at that time. If you simply think about the cases where you want to do something, I think you will see that generally the mood is prior to any anticipation of pleasure, and that often there is a mood, desire, or craving to do something without any real (conscious) anticipation of pleasure at all. Sometimes you may even actually anticipate a disappointment or letdown because you are aware of how important the act or thing simply seems to you.
One of my best students one time, disbelieving this, argued that he quite often did things for some pleasure he believed he would get. I thought he was wrong about himself, so I asked him to pick something specific that he felt that way about. He mentioned water skiing, or at least his numerous futile attempts to water ski. He was a big fellow, and for a long time he had been unsuccessfully attempting to water ski. He had even bought a power boat so that he and his wife and friends could get on the lake whenever they wanted, particularly so that he might ski. He really wanted to water ski, but he had never been able to do it. He had even broken tow ropes in his unsuccessful attempts to get up on the water on his skis. Up to that point, he had only been successful at letting his wife and friends ski while he drove the boat. Alas. But he still wanted to water ski. I asked him why he wanted to, feeling I already knew the answer and that it was not what he thought.
“Well,” he said, “I see all these other people doing it and they look like they are having so much fun, I would like to experience the fun they are having; I want to do it so that I get the pleasure out of it they do.” “But earlier in the class tonight,” I reminded him, “you said you have often been at parties where you watched people eat things like oysters, and though they seemed to really enjoy it, you hadn’t the slightest desire to try the oysters. Eating oysters did not strike you as being enticing, regardless of how much fun others seem to have doing it.” “But I like water skiing.” “No, you don’t. You have never even been able to do it. You don’t even know whether you will like it or not if you are ever able to do it.”
“Well, I would like it — I like being able to go fast on the water with the wet spray and all.”
“But you can do that in your boat; there is no need to satisfy the urge for that by having to get out on skis; you can have that sort of fun or pleasure in your boat. In fact, except for slaloming or some such, you cannot go any faster on your skis than you can in your boat; and if your boat has much power, you can probably even go much faster in it than would be safe for anyone to try water skiing behind it.”
“Well, then, why do I want to water ski.””I don’t know why; but I do know that you do want to. And I suspect that it is because you want to so badly, and it has been so difficult to learn, that if you ever are able to do it successfully, you will probably be very happy about it. Your desire will, if ever fulfilled, cause you great pleasure. The thought of the pleasure does not bring about your desire.”
Attractions to people are often like this too. I think often there is no (known) reason for a particular attraction to someone just as there is no (known) reason for a particular desire to do something. Further we often are attracted to people, or desirous of things or activities, we intellectually know make us miserable. We do not always seem to want or like things, or people, for the pleasure they might bring.
Further, if we did, would it not be more reasonable to delay things like eating or sleeping when just a little hungry or tired, in order to build up the desire so that the pleasure would be even greater when achieved. But we do not act that way usually. Of course, in some areas like sex we do sometimes delay gratification by prolonging foreplay so that the pleasure will be even more pleasurable, but that is also partly at least because the delaying tactics of prolonged play are themselves pleasurable and because we may be in the mood for such play and such delay. But even in sex there are limits to what kinds of things and delays one would go through just to make the end more pleasurable.
And in most activities, though, like writing, editing, and revising this book (or the class notes I hand out to my students so that they can listen, reflect, and respond or seek clarification in class rather than unthinkingly and busily taking faulty, illegible, unintelligible notes, perhaps about things they are not really following) there are many other ways I could have more pleasurably and profitably spent my time. Working over this as a book, not knowing whether it will be published, profitable, read, or helpful to anyone, I am hardly writing it because it is fun to do so; it is not; writing in a case like this, where it is to some general sort of audience without particular questions or comments to respond to and where there is no feedback as I proceed, is most tedious and laborious for me. And I am not learning much myself by doing it because the insights (have) come while thinking about and discussing the topic (which I still find fascinating after many years), not from organizing and writing down in book form what I already think. I am writing this because I believe the ideas I have developed and attained in thinking and reading about relationships should be passed on to others who have the same kinds of questions, concerns, and ideas I had. I hope it can spare them some of the trials, fears, worries, embarrassments, and mistakes I have made, and I hope it can help them have the framework I and others lacked to better understand and evaluate their own experiences, values, ideas, and ideals. I had many of the ideas I am writing here while corresponding about or discussing particular issues with friends. Discovering and sharing the ideas at the time was most enjoyable, but organizing all the material into book form and writing for an unknown and abstract audience is definitely not fun for me.
And to anyone who argues people only do unpleasant things for the pleasure they will get later, that certainly does not apply to working on this book. Certainly I will be glad when this is finished, but that is because it is not fun to do; and it is always nice to stop doing or to finish things that are not much fun. But I am not doing it so that I will feel good when it is done. If I, or anyone, were to do things for reasons like that, we would go about driving splinters up our fingernails or hitting our heads with hammers so that it would feel good to stop. And certainly I will be glad if this book helps anyone, but that little bit of gladness and pride could have been easily overridden by, say, a few more hours on the tennis court, at the violin, reading a good book, spending time with my wife and children, doing photography or building up my photography business, or doing any of a number of other things that are more pleasurable, rewarding, and satisfying than doing this is. I am writing this because I believe it can benefit others in important ways, not because I will get more joy out of benefitting others with this book than I could get spending the time it took to write it in other ways.
Why we sometimes root for some particular person or want to help another person, I do not know. Perhaps there is just some sort of empathy, sympathy, or concern out of “chemistry” for them. Perhaps we feel they are deserving because we believe them to be good or innocent people. At any rate, people can, and do, often have feelings of benevolence for others, not just feelings for themselves. And often these feelings of benevolence for others, or recognition of others’ just deserts, outweigh feelings we have for our own regard.
Two examples of this are the desire we have to see future generations be benefitted, even though it might cost us something to bestow that benefit, and Gordie Howe’s remark in an interview after he scored his monumental 800th professional career hockey goal that he hoped others would someday break his record because it was such a great feeling to break a record like this one that lots of people should be able to experience it.
And another kind of case that seems to me to demonstrate that not all actions by everyone are selfishly motivated, is that in which people respect the (prior) rights of others (such as keeping promises to them, paying debts to them, etc.) even though they might be better off or happier were they not to do so. For example, when you let someone else alone because they are studying or sleeping, even though you would love to talk to them and know they would converse with you. Or when you nicely allow someone to finish watching a television show they have been watching, even though that will cause you to miss part of a show you want to watch; you recognize their right simply because they were there first. Even a larger group who wants to watch another program will often recognize an individual’s or smaller groups right in this kind of case.
Of course, there are some people who are egoists — who often or only act for their perceived own best interests or pleasure, and who, in some cases, think they are justified in acting that way. But it is hardly a universal or even very typical trait. I know only a few people who act that way, and even those people seem to act that way for two different reasons. Some of them seem totally unaware of other people’s needs, whereas others seem to be aware of them but not to care about them or to consider them.
The first sort of person is like a child who wants your full attention when they have something to tell you and simply cannot understand how you could be too busy with something else to meet with them. It is the kind of person who says hurtful things without even realizing it, who misses appointments without even calling to let you know they are not coming, and who expects you to keep appointments they have not mentioned to you but only thought about themselves. It is the kind of person who picks up and handles fragile and important items in your home or office, plays with them, and just sets them down roughly, precariously, or anywhere without even noticing your eyes about to bug out of your head. And it is the kind of person who lets their children run amuck in stores because they do not want to hurt their feelings. I worked at a place one time as a photographer where there was no lock on the darkroom door, and the boss occasionally would just sort of look in to see what was happening. Even though he had been a photographer in his younger days, the idea that someone else might be developing film in the darkroom and need to have the door remained closed never seemed to occur to him. Such behavior seems more self-absorbed than mean or uncharitable.
Though some people of this sort would immediately apologize if they realized they were hurting, disturbing, or annoying you, some of them are also people who would not change how they behaved even if you made them aware they were bothering you — some of them would even get angry with you for asking them to curb their children, not handle your fragile possessions, or take more than a minute to drop what you are doing to be attentive to them. They are the kind of person who instead of begging your pardon when they step on your foot would instead comment on how big your feet were or how much room you seemed to need for them. Some people even get violent sometimes, and then blame you for provoking them, because you refuse some unreasonable request or desire they wanted you to fulfill, even though you refused it politely. And, of course, there are a few relatively rare people who behave in intentionally hurtful ways without caring about it.
Most people, however, are not self-centered or egoistic. They help their friends, neighbors, and often strangers even at some inconvenience to themselves. They try to lend a hand when they see a need. And they certainly do not try to hurt or walk over innocent people, though it might be to their benefit to do so. Not all businessmen are so motivated by hunger for profit that they terminate longtime loyal employees just because those employees are not as efficient or productive as they once were. Egoism is hardly a universal trait, as the theory of psychological egoism holds. And I see no reason that it should be cultivated to become one. So insofar as ethical egoism depends for its justification on psychological egoism, it is unjustified.
Now there is some merit to ethical egoism, it seems, in that one should at least take into consideration one’s own self-interest, and one should not always be denying oneself. But I think one also needs to consider others; and most people do. As one of my students pointed out one time, if he had food to give away to others who needed it, he would.
This prompted another student to ask him whether he would give away food to others if he himself was hungry and did not have enough to share. And if not, was he not then an egoist after all?
First of all, sometimes acting in your own best interest, even selfishly, would not make you a psychological egoist in the sense the theory describes. Being an egoist means you act in your own perceived best interest always, not just some times. Ethical egoism would require you to keep the food for yourself if you needed it, but so might some other theories of what is right.
For example, it seems to me there might be a theory that the most deserving person should have the food, and you might be the most deserving person — which would not only make it right for you to keep it, but might make it obligatory for another person to give it to you if they had it instead. Under egoism, they should keep their own food, just as you should keep your own food, though you each could try to steal the other’s food. Or if everyone is equally deserving, and only one can benefit from the food, a theory might require that whoever already has it should keep it. Or a theory might hold that though one has certain (lesser) obligations to others, one does not owe others one’s own life; it might hold that it would be permissible and saintly to sacrifice one’s life for one or more deserving others, but not obligatory.
A strictly altruistic principle would require you to give your food to another and for him to give it back to you. Neither of you should eat it but each should insist the other should. So that principle seems not even workable for this kind of situation. Altruism seems to require everyone else to be more important than the agent; but since everyone is an agent, everyone must always, in essence, be doing favors for others and not let others do favors for them in return.
Utilitarianism says that the greatest number should benefit, so that if you had enough food for one person your size on the one hand or for two or three smaller people on the other, you should give it to the smaller people. But utilitarianism does not take into account anyone’s merit; it just takes into account their numbers. Suppose you had packed food for the trip and had advised the others to do so as well, but they had all ignored your warning. Suppose further that the two or more smaller people were not as nice as you or had not led as good and contributing a life as you had so far. Perhaps they then do not deserve your food and you are not obligated to give it to them.
At the beginning of each course I teach on ethics, I present my students with a hypothetical thought-experiment merely for its value in stimulating important ethical reflections, not because it is realistic, (though it bears a striking resemblance to an ethical dilemma I will describe later that was reportedly faced by some British officials during World War II). The thought- experiment is the following dilemma. Imagine that, like in one of those old time peril movies, you are at the switch of a train track. Your spouse or your baby is tied securely to the track, and if you switch the oncoming train to go that way, your spouse or baby will be killed. (The sarcastic remark I add is that if it is your spouse, you have only been married a short time so you still love him or her). However, if you switch the train to the other track, you will force it to go over a destroyed bridge, thousands of feet above jagged rocks and a raging current. There are one hundred people on this train (you do not know who they are; they may be friends, convicts, politicians, strangers, or just any normal, random group of people), and they all will be killed if you divert the train over the broken bridge. There are no other alternatives open to you; you will either save your loved one at the expense of the one hundred people or you will save the one hundred people at the sacrifice of your loved one. What should you do, and why? Not what will you do, but what should you do? One other thing is that you know which way the switch is set already, so leaving it that way is to choose one of the alternatives, knowing which one you have chosen; you cannot just leave the decision to fate, chance, or God; trying to do so by not deciding does not remove your responsibility for choosing which happens. As with my class, I will discuss this case after I have presented all the general information about ethical principles that I think important to understand before getting into specific, somewhat complex cases like this one.
[Regarding the British case during World War II, there is a purported story that British officials knew ahead of time about the German bombing raid on Coventry. But they knew about it because they had broken the most elaborate secret code the Germans had; and in order to insure that the Germans continued using that code for their most important messages the British could not do anything to give evidence they had access to it. Warning the citizens of Coventry to evacuate before the air raid would have risked alerting the Germans. So the decision was made to let Coventry endure the bombing raid without particularly early warning. Some of the people who knew of the raid had family and friends in Coventry, but warning them would have risked losing access to this most valuable code. Hence, they were put in the position of deciding between, on the one hand, obedience to country and possibly to the greater good of the greater number in the long run, or on the other hand, the immediate safety of their loved ones.]
Hedonism: Pleasure or Happiness As the Ultimate or Only Good
I want to argue extensively here that happiness, pleasure, or contentment, etc. are not, and are not even really considered to be by most people, the only or ultimate goods in life, though they are at least one form or kind of good.
(1) If happiness were our goal and if we could get it by pills, drugs, drinking, or by living on the kind of planet describe in one Star Trek episode, where residents had everything they wanted but only as illusions in their minds, then we would choose to live that way. But by and large, we would not choose that kind of life.
(2) If we thought happiness would be best for our children to have and we wanted the best for them, we could and should teach them, say, to be happy drinking beer and watching tv every night and we would secure them enough skill for them to get an easy job that will allow them to do that in the evenings. We would teach them to be insensitive to others and the needs, suffering, or desires of others so that they would not be hurt by the problems of others or have to spend time taking other people’s feelings into consideration in cases that were not in their own best interests. But it is repugnant to us to teach our children to be like that even though we do want what is best for them and even though we do want them to be happy. Hence, it is not happiness alone that we want them to have. We also want them to have sensitivity toward others, to have the desire to strive to achieve their full potentials toward good, honest, and/or worthwhile goals, whether those goals are intellectual, creative, physical, artistic, social, or whatever. The happiness we want our children (and ourselves) to have is that which is reserved, earned, and attained in some desirable or right way.
(3) In line psychologically with what I said earlier about seeking happiness, as Bishop Joseph Butler held over 200 years ago (Butler, 1726), happiness is not a goal, but a resulting side-effect or by-product of striving for or reaching our goals (and, I would add, of sometimes just doing things we like, without necessarily having a goal: dancing, walking, playing in the sand, concentrating on a puzzle, problem, or something else we find exciting or challenging, etc.). We do not desire food because it would make us happy, but because we are hungry. We do not desire water to make us happy but to quench our thirst. I would argue similarly about sex and seduction: an attempted seduction which operates by promising happiness as the end of the sexual encounter will almost always fail, and justifiably so. To succeed, seduction must first get the seducee in the mood for sex, however one might do that, and then take advantage of the mood. To just talk about how much fun it would be if only the other person would cooperate does not tend to be very enticing. They already know it might be fun, or that it might be fun if they were interested. But if they are not interested, it would not perhaps be fun. And even if it would be, that idea, by itself, is not sufficient stimulus to interest them.
In reverse, to get a would-be seducer to enjoy your company when you have no inclination toward having sex at that time, you have to change the seducer’s mood to one of being satisfied by companionship, conversation, sympathetic understanding, or something else. You have to change the seducer’s mood because just providing or offering something else to someone who wants sex will neither intrigue nor satisfy them. The mood is what determines what will cause happiness; considerations of happiness do not generally cause the mood.
Little kids that want something can often be satisfied by giving them something else, but only if you make that something else seem more interesting to them than the original object of their desire. If you do not (or if it does not seem more interesting to them just on its own), they will not accept it as a substitute. Adults are not unlike children in this way.
(4) The thought or anticipation of happiness resulting from a contemplated activity, even when you have such a thought, is rarely a goad to action. For example, writing a term paper or some such is not motivated by knowing how great it will feel to be done, no matter how bad you may already feel about not starting it. When I used to have to write papers, I took a break every chance I could — as a break that I deserved when I had done some small amount of work, and as a break I needed when I had not been able to do any work.
Mental activity, as well as physical activity, reflects Butler’s point too. When I was in the ninth grade, I was fascinated by algebra; it seemed like some kind of magic. I thought it was fantastic and would come home in the afternoons and study ahead in the algebra book for hours. I loved working out word problems, seeing new relationships, etc., and the total concentration on the ideas involved made me happy or, actually, oblivious to almost anything else. Some of my happiest hours during my high school years were spent learning about algebra. But that happiness was because of the absorbing concentration and the insights and mental gymnastics involved; I liked algebra for those things, and they made me happy because I liked those things. I did not like those things because they made me happy. It would be silly to think every high school student would be as happy studying algebra as I was. Hedonists have the cause and the (side-) effects backwards.
In his book Ethics, William Frankena lists a number of things (pp. 87,88) besides happiness which have been claimed to be good, things perhaps necessary to some extent for the good life, such as life itself and conscious activity, health and strength, knowledge, aesthetic experience, morally good dispositions or virtues, love, friendship, cooperation, just distribution of goods and evils, freedom, security, adventure and novelty, good reputation, etc. I would want to stress or add to this list the maximization of one’s capabilities to create, discover, recognize and enjoy or appreciate goodness, beauty, and truth.
Also, some of the things mentioned above, such as health, and some of the things mentioned in the book Ethics for Today, by Titus and Keeton (Titus 1976) — freedom, right to work, education (meaning schooling, and not necessarily learning) — strike me as important, not as particular good ends in themselves, but only as means to more important things, such as fulfillment of potential, athletic excellence, leisure time one could devote to enjoyable interests, etc. With regard to health, for example, when I was a terrified college freshman I used to do better on chemistry exams when I was ill than when I was well. When I was ill I was less self- conscious about, or threatened by, doing poorly, was more relaxed, and thus did better. When I was well I had no excuse for doing poorly, and this helped intimidate me so much that I did poorly just out of intense nervousness on the first two exams. Many people have written impressive books while ill, recuperating from injury, ailment, or surgery, or while in prison. Being ill may even respectably allow you the time or frame of mind to do some worthwhile things you may not be able to do while having to do the daily tasks and chores expected of normally healthy and free people. Sometimes being ill in certain ways turns out to be a “blessing in disguise” — turns out to be a benefit. Good health is not necessarily a good end just of itself.
There is a comment in Ethics for Today about how insufficient sleep is responsible for quarrels, irritability, nastiness, etc. I think is only partially true, if at all. A good person who knows about right acts is not going to be nasty or irritable just because sleepy, ill, frustrated, or bored; only people already disposed toward bad behavior are going to act badly when tired, sick, bored, etc. A good person will explain he is too tired, upset, or ill to function well or will simply withdraw when in such a state, or will make a redoubled effort to be good, nice, understanding, tolerant, etc. One of the academic counselors I used to work with made a special effort to be patient with students when she noticed herself getting exasperated and impatient after a succession of difficult students. She said it really paid off for the later students and for her own returned enthusiasm and interest in her work.
At any rate, to strive toward one’s potential for creating, discovering, and appreciating good, beauty, and truth seem to me to be (one of) the prime good(s) in life and the right way to live, even though it may not bring happiness in the normal sense of the word. It may bring a fulfillment and peace; or it may bring frustration, anguish, and torment (particularly in this imperfect world); but still it seem better than an unfulfilled, un- actualized, insipid, inane, empty contentment or happiness. It may be great for a dog to live a “dog’s life” — having its needs met, doing little but loving its master, and lying about or frolicking around all day; but that does not seem to me to be much of a life for a person. In the book Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1962) writes about what the good life is for a person, and he incorporates his notion of an excellent life into an interesting, and significant definition of happiness. “Happiness is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence” (p. 17). I would add that it is not only conformity with excellence (often translated as “virtue” but not meaning what we today call virtue, but simply meaning “excellence”), but also the pursuit of excellence that brings the kind of contentment or self-fulfillment — at least while one is actively mentally engaged in the pursuit — which I think Aristotle might have had in mind in this sense of “happiness”.
Aristotle also pointed out that much of happiness, in the normal sense of the word, was the result of luck; and still it seems to be; the circumstances of your birth, your education, your associations, the stability and form of your country’s government and other influences on you, and, in business, the vagaries of the market. Read almost any success story and you will see, even with the most careful planning, elements of luck playing a huge part. Or read, if you can find them, stories of failure, and often you will find the same brilliance and same amount of planning, and simply bad luck or bad timing, or just lack of good luck, contributing heavily to the failure. Being caught or spared in a (natural) disaster not of your own making is certainly luck; sometimes being part of a company or business venture that becomes very successful, or that fails, is; winning one of these huge lotteries is certainly a matter of luck. Prosperity, luck, happiness are all things that help make life better, but they are not things totally within your control, not in the way your choice of actions, efforts, and intentions is. A totally good life requires luck as well as moral behavior; people cannot control their luck (just in some cases their odds), but the parts of the good life people can control are their behaving reasonably, in accord with moral principles, and their having morally good intentions.
And there can be a certain satisfaction in that and in the rightly attempted pursuit of the totally good life, even when that pursuit falls short of its goal because of circumstances outside of your control. Baseball player Pete Rose’s comments after the sixth game of the Boston-Cincinnati World Series (Boston finally won the thrilling game that had numerous tremendous plays and dramatic opportunities to win by both teams) probably illustrate this in part. Asked whether he felt bad they (Cincinnati) had lost, he said “No; it was just such a tremendous thrill to have been part of such a great game, one in which both teams played so well, it was hardly sad to lose.” And often, even in sports, it is somehow more gratifying to do your best and lose to a superior performance than it is to win when you are not playing very well. Of course, it is best to have a great performance that also wins over another great performance. And Rose has said (1985), regardless of the satisfaction of playing well or the disappointment of playing poorly, baseball is, just in terms of fun, much more fun when you win, regardless of how well or poorly you played. Life and sports both have both dimensions — doing your best and being fortunate; and the only part you have any control of at all is doing your best; which can give you a certain amount of satisfaction or peace even if it is not accompanied by fortune that brings you fun or happiness.
Of course, self-fulfillment may bring happiness and may be accompanied by good fortune. I am simply arguing that it is an important good even if it does not. And certainly there are easier ways to attain happiness or at least enjoyment. For example, I was just as happy (perhaps even happier) listening to rock music when I was in junior high school and high school as I am now listening to symphonic music and opera arias. Nevertheless, I believe that, in general, opera is better than rock — not because it is more enjoyable, but because it requires more faculties than just our emotions or “surface” listening; and because it is much harder to perform well, and somewhat harder to appreciate well. Good music (of whatever sort) requires more skills than just being able to write or hear a simple, strong beat or simple lyrics. It requires more skill and more concentration, and it contains more to appreciate on different levels, or more elements that are satisfying to different faculties. There may be intellectually satisfying stylistic elements, apart from the listening pleasure.
John Stuart Mill thought that the so-called higher pleasures are in some way more pleasurable than lower or ordinary ones. I disagree. I think they are not more pleasurable (consider a sad, tragic play, or detailed drama or opera requiring total concentration, particularly in a hot, stuffy theater), but nonetheless they are better because they require more skill to create, more skill to appreciate, and because they offer so much more to experience and savor to those who can. It is not so much that they are necessarily more fun, but that they are more interesting and stimulating to those who can appreciate them.
I believe utilitarianism should be rejected when meant in terms of the greatest happiness for the greatest number since, as already argued, happiness is not and should not be our most cherished goal, though happiness arrived at in good or right ways may sometimes be something to be cherished. But utilitarianism should also be partially rejected, or accepted only with reservations, when it is stated as “an act is right if and only if its consequences cause the greatest good (or least evil, or greatest balance of good over evil) (whatever the good or evil might be) for the greatest number, compared to any other act available to the agent.” I will explain and argue for this partial rejection momentarily. A good thing about utilitarianism though is that at least it shows a recognition and concern for the good of others (as one should) rather than just one’s own good as ethical egoism argues.
Notice, also, that both egoism and utilitarianism are correctly expressed in terms of doing what is the best for the agent or the greatest number, not just in terms of doing what the agent (person performing the act) thinks is best. What a person thinks is best and therefore thinks is right is not always what actually is best or right. An act that an agent thinks will cause the greatest balance of good over evil may in fact not cause that greatest balance. Now it may be an excuse for a person doing something that does not provide the greatest good over evil, that he honestly and reasonably thought it would. But we still might want to say such a person did the wrong thing, no matter how well-intentioned and reasonable he was, and no matter how honorable and good he and his motives were. There is a difference between good intentions (or good people) and right acts. Hence, the criteria for determining what is right or wrong must refer to events and/or consequences in the world, not to what someone thinks they are or will be. If criteria for right and wrong depended upon what the agents thought would cause the greater balance of good over evil, then the mother who poisoned her child when she thought she was giving her medicine could not be said to have done the wrong thing. (Remember, in saying she did the wrong thing, we are not necessarily, and not at all in this case, saying she did something for which she is to be blamed, chastised, or punished.) Or you would have to say
something strange like, “she did the right thing when she gave her child poison believing it to be medicine, but it was the wrong thing as soon as she found the child dead and realized her mistake.” Actually, it was the wrong thing the whole time, though she may have only discovered it was the wrong thing later. Similarly one might do something wrong, thinking it to be right, and never find out the error. Conversely, one may do something intending to cause evil, and accidentally end up causing good, such as the case mentioned earlier of the would-be assassin who botches the attempt but alters his intended victim’s schedule by it in a way that thwarts a later independent and more probably successful attempt by someone else. Or a ruthless boss might maliciously fire an honest employee only to drive him to find a better job that he otherwise would not have sought or found. In such cases we might condemn the assailant or the boss but say what they did was (or ended up) a good (or the best) thing. They did what turned out to be right despite their intentions and attempt to do otherwise. The criteria that egoism and utilitarianism state for an act’s being right or wrong are correctly stated insofar as they refer to consequences in fact, not just what the agent thinks the consequences will be. We might want to say of the mother who poisons her child accidentally because she has tended the child beyond her endurance that she was a well-intentioned mother and a good person, but that she did the wrong thing, and that it was disastrous, even though she may be excused or absolved. Good and intelligent people with laudable motivation and conscientious thought can still do the wrong thing. Doing the wrong thing is not always a poor reflection on someone’s character, ability, intelligence, or motives.
The following eleven kinds of cases, however, are at least some of the kinds of cases in which I believe utilitarianism gives, or can give, the wrong answer about what is the right thing to do, since in such cases there are (possibly overriding) factors to consider beyond just the value or good of the consequences.
(1) Cases of breaking a promise or not repaying a debt because some greater good would result from such behavior. Suppose, for example, you agree or promise to meet your wife somewhere for dinner and on the way there you run into some old friends (or an old flame) who wants you to have some drinks with them. If you do, the total good or fun for all of you may outweigh your wife’s anger, disappointment, worry, etc., at being stood up. Nevertheless, it seems that not keeping the appointment, in this case, would be wrong. Similarly with regard to not repaying a financial debt simply because you need the money more or could put the money to better use and benefit than could the person to whom you owe it.
(2) Some cases of punishment. Many people argue, erroneously I think, that a criminal should not be punished for committing a past crime since it will not deter future criminals and since the consequences of such punishment include the criminal’s suffering, and therefore bring less good (more suffering) into the world than would the alternative of not punishing him. The cry is often heard “What good will punishing him do!”
Now I agree that in cases where there are sincere remorse and repentance and where ample restitution can be made and is made, and particularly, where there were mitigating circumstances in the crime in the first place, perhaps punishment should not be imposed. But there are crimes (such as cold-blooded murder) where restitution is not possible, where repentance is not found, where grievous wrong is not recognized or accepted by the guilty (actually guilty, and not just convicted) person, and where there were no mitigating circumstances; and I think in some of these cases punishment is warranted — not because it will do any good, but because the person to whom it is properly applied has earned it by doing something wrong that he does not care about and cannot right. It seems there are certain things, like cold-blooded murder, for example, that a person ought to know better than to commit and that if they do commit it then (unless there is some excusing or overriding circumstance) they in some way forfeit their right to have their highest good considered in society’s making decisions about their deserved fate. It is not sufficient to say that the guilty should be pardoned because they will never do such a thing again; rather they should be punished simply because they have inexcusably done it in the first place, have not atoned for it, and/or have not, will not, or cannot make restitution. Punishment may be a deterrent to wrong behavior, but deterrence is not its main point. Further, there are other kinds of deterrents besides punishment; anything which prevents a person from committing some crime or wrong is a deterrent. For example, good safes are a deterrent to theft; police visibility, good street lighting, and populated public places are a deterrent to rape and mugging. Punishment (like its counterpart, reward) is not something that looks to the future, but something that looks to the past, for its desert. If we were to punish only those people who will do things that are wrong, we need to catch them before they do it, not after; on utilitarian grounds, a person getting ready to commit murder deserves punishment only if you catch him before he does it. If he can do it before you catch him, and honestly never intend to do it again, you should let him go (or, if you want to set him as an example to discourage other criminals tell the press he has been punished though he has not). (Also, by restitution in cases where it applies, such as theft or destruction of property, I do not mean paying back just the amount stolen or damaged. If A steals B’s car, then the amount of restitution should include the value of the car plus at least whatever other tangible and intangible costs and inconveniences B and others, such as the police, incurred because of the missing car.) (In the case of reward, on utilitarian grounds you would only need to give a reward to people who will be enticed to do good by it — before they do it; you needn’t reward people for good they have just done, but for the good you hope they will do. If there is someone who continually does what is right and who you know will continue to do so because of the kind of conscience and conscientiousness he or she has, on utilitarian grounds there would be no reason ever to give them a reward, no matter how much good they do. Hence the better a person someone is, the less they ought to be rewarded.)
(3) Cases of “punishing” innocent people. Like the story of the over-protective mother who tells the first-grade teacher that if her child misbehaves just to slap the child next to him and that will teach her child a lesson. Realistic cases of this sort would be like the following: supposing it was true that public punishment of criminals did deter future crime, then some might argue that such public punishments (or tortures) ought to be inflicted upon people, known only by the authorities to be innocent, when the real culprits cannot be found, in order to deter others from committing similar crimes. If you cannot find the real criminal, then pick up some poor derelict or some such, pin the crime on him, imprison or hang him, and keep potential criminals from committing crimes. Making an example out of an innocent person that no one in the public knows is innocent would work just as well as a deterrent as would making an example out of a guilty person. It would also make law enforcement work much easier since it would generally be easier to apprehend (and frame) innocent people than to apprehend and convict criminals who try to get away and hide.
The utilitarians who in case (2) above ask what good it would do to punish guilty people might be wary about asking that, for if it does some good, it might also be good to punish (torture) secretly innocent people. In both cases (2) and (3), utilitarians miss the (or a major) point for punishing criminals; it has to do with giving them something they have earned by their actions in the past, not something that is done just for others to have a better future.
In saying this, I am not advocating that punishment be vengeance or retaliation since those have connotations of being irrational, subjective, and passionately vindictive. I believe that just punishment is rational and objective and can be dispensed without passion, vengeance, or vindictiveness. Any satisfaction that is achieved for justly punishing a deserving criminal is beside the point. Further, retaliation and vengeance do not take into account right or wrong, and often not even guilt or innocence. Vindictive revenge can be taken out on innocent people accidentally associated in some non-criminal way with the culprit — people of the same neighborhood, tribe, ethnic group, race, religion, family, country, etc. And it can be exacted for an act that may not have been immoral, such as non-negligent, accidental killing or killing in justifiable self-defense. Just punishment can coincide with revenge, but it does not have to; they are two separate things even when they apply to the same case.
1 – 3 above are similar in a way. Paying debts, keeping promises, and giving rewards are like punishment in that their justifications lie in the past, not the future. We reward or punish someone because of what they have done, not what they will do. We should pay back loans and keep our promises (barring overriding circumstances) because we said we would, not because there will be some future benefit.
(4) Cases of not fulfilling apparent obligations to loved ones simply because some greater good could be accomplished for a greater number (of strangers); for example, sending your child (or yourself) and four strangers to a lower quality college just because it is less expensive, instead of sending your child (or yourself) to the highest quality institution he (you) merits. This is not to say that higher quality education is necessarily more expensive, nor that one owes one’s child a college education. But I do think one owes one’s friends and family members some more consideration (unless there are particular overriding reasons to the contrary) than one owes strangers. Even if a college education is not one of them, apart from some special overriding reasons to the contrary, one has certain obligations to one’s children simply because one voluntarily or intentionally (speaking here for argument’s sake only of those cases) had the sex that conceived them and because they need adult help. In marrying someone, one takes on a special commitment or a special relationship and in part gives one’s mate reason to believe they can rely on you in ways that a stranger has no right to particularly expect. Even a date implies a commitment to return (with) the person you take, to be attentive and courteous to them, and also not to cut short the expected time because you want to “late date” someone else (you may have just met); all this implying, of course, there is not some overriding circumstances that justifies behaving otherwise. And this is even if you and a bunch of others might have a better time if you go off with them and desert your date, than the time you and they will have if you do not. Greater happiness for you and your friends doesn’t justify ignoring or shirking an obligation.
(5) Cases of overriding a smaller group’s prior claim to something that would make a larger group better off having. For example, consider a smaller group watching a television program whose ending overlaps the beginning of another program a larger group would like to watch. For example, the first group’s program is from 7 to 10 and the second group wants to watch something that begins at 9:30. This happens in dormitories, bars, homes with one television, etc. It would be perhaps saintly or supererogatory for the smaller group to forfeit watching the end of their program to let the larger group watch the entire program they want to see; it would not be obligatory for them to do so. Yet utilitarianism would have it be an obligation.
(6) Similar to case 5, but not involving temporally prior rights — cases where a smaller group has some right to something which prevents the greatest number having the greatest good. Cases of type 3 above may also come under this. These are such cases as not being able to, say, exterminate the poor and the illiterate even if this might make it better for all future generations. It covers not letting a lynch mob have an innocent victim they want even if they may do more damage and harm if they do not get him.
It covers (and this may also fall under 4 above) cases where in sports (or perhaps even business or war) utilitarianism seems to require players for unpopular teams to surreptitiously throw a game or series so that the more popular team could win. By the time UCLA had won seven consecutive NCAA basketball titles and 9 out of 10, only their alumni, their student body and faculty, and a few misguided others were still rooting for them to beat whatever underdog they might be playing in the NCAA tournament. Yet it would hardly be right for a UCLA team member to throw a game (even secretly) just in order to make all the opponent’s fans satisfied. Yet utilitarianism seems to me to demand that. Similarly, cases where a lot of Romans would like to see just a few Christians thrown to the lions. Or perhaps in our own time, cases where a lot of fans would like to see boxers or hockey players brutally fight or race car drivers slam into walls or each other in spectacular crashes.
(7) Cases involving greater good for larger numbers of inexcusably bad, or inexcusably less deserving, people versus greater good for smaller groups of (heretofore) more deserving (good) people. It seems right that the smaller group should benefit in such a case. A smaller group of good people, it seems to me, deserve to have benefits over a larger group of inexcusably bad people, even in some cases if there is the possibility that giving the larger group the benefit might convert them to better behavior; and certainly when there is not that possibility.
(8)Cases involving an innocent agent(s) giving up something just because others are more numerous, such as the previously mentioned example from one of my students of a person’s giving up food to keep others alive while he or she then dies. I think in some cases an agent has a right or at least a strong claim for his own interests simply because he is the agent, particularly if some work or sacrifice is involved. To sacrifice one’s life for others is a supererogatory (“saintly) act, not an obligatory one. It is not a duty, but it is beyond the call of duty. So insofar as utilitarianism requires one to dive on a hand grenade to save one’s buddies, it requires more than it should.
I say innocent agent because if one stole food from the others in the first place, he does not then particularly have the right to keep it. Or if the hand grenade is there because it is one’s own and one has been negligently playing with it and needlessly endangering the lives of others, one may have at least some sort of obligation to try to save those others even at a great risk to one’s self.
There is some question in ethics whether it is generally a greater duty to refrain from causing harm than to create good, or whether these are equally obligatory. One of Hippocrates’ principles was that if you could do a patient no good, at least do him no harm. There are no or few laws requiring good samaritanism — requiring people to help strangers in need, but it is certainly illegal to hurt strangers for no particular reason. Yet there are others who take the view expressed in a popular slogan of the 1960’s: “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” meaning that if you are not trying to help a situation, you actually are doing harm.
This is a difficult issue involving, I suspect, many different kinds of cases and situations, some of which may require intervention and positive action but some of which may not be one’s responsibility to get involved in, even if not doing so could allow some harm. For example of this latter case, I think no one has a duty to dive on a hand grenade to protect others if that person did not cause the danger from the grenade in the first place. I think, however, the responsibility to warn someone within in earshot, by calling to them, whom you see walking unknowingly toward a “blasting area,” even though you have nothing to do with the blasting, is not significantly different from the duty you have not to dynamite someone intentionally. Let me just say here that I think it is at least an equal obligation to do any positive good that requires little work or sacrifice on your part as it is to refrain from doing positive harm. As doing good requires more work or sacrifice by an agent, I think more argument or more justification is needed to show the agent would be at fault, culpable, or blameworthy for the harm caused (or the good missed) by his or her not acting in a positive manner. Part of the seemingly greater force behind the obligation to refrain from harm than behind the obligations to do good is that there is no “cost” or burden for an agent not to do harm. To do no harm requires no act at all by an agent; whereas requiring positive good does require the agent to do something and therefore imposes some burden or risk. What I am claiming here is that I think a good case could be made that as the risks or actual costs to the agent for positive action are less, and the harm or risk to innocent others for the agent’s lack of such positive action are great (or the benefits to innocent or deserving others would be great), the agent has a higher obligation to take positive action. Conversely, the agent has increasingly less, if any, obligation to act as his undeserved burden is greater and/or the harm that would be done by his inaction (or the benefit brought about by his action) is less.
(9) Cases involving unfair distribution of a greater wealth rather than a fair distribution of less wealth. For example, is it better for a society to divide a little wealth equally or for it to be able to have a great wealth, but divided so that a few get great benefit, and others only a little, or much less? Utilitarianism would seem to say it is better to aim for a society where, say 1000 “value units” are spread among 100 people in a way that gives 99 of them each one and one of them 901 than it is to aim for a society of 95 people where each of them has 10 of only 950 “value units”. And even where there are the same number of people to consider and the same wealth to divide, utilitarianism does not suggest what sort of distribution is fairest.
In his book Ethics, William Frankena (op. cit.) argues that an equal distribution is to be preferred as the fairest to an unequal one. Even apart from questions then of someone’s being allowed to keep (or leave to his heirs) greater wealth because he has attained it simply by working harder than others (not by being more fortunate or by luckily or shrewdly owning the right things which become more valuable as circumstances change), and even apart from questions dealing with ownership, through luck or foresight, into ownership of valuable items, such as equipment that is the means of production, I do not agree that an equal distribution of wealth or good things is always the fairest or best one. Sometimes an unequal distribution is necessary and desirable so that at least someone or some group can attain things otherwise impossible, even though this requires a sacrifice on the part of others. For example, it seems to me that Neil Armstrong’s or anyone’s being able to stand on the moon could make the expense worthwhile even though the rest of us do not get to go but have to pay for it. And it seems better to me that some people might live in mansions, if everyone else could live in at least a good home, though not perhaps as good of homes as they could live in if no one got to live in a mansion because the materials and labor used to build houses were equally distributed. Also, it would not be right to prevent people from scrimping to send their children to violin lessons or to college to have a better life, just so that such parents could have a slightly better environment they could share equally with their children such as more steak, slightly longer vacations, a newer car, etc. I believe that a very lopsided distribution of wealth, with great riches for some contributing to great poverty and hardship for others, is always at least prima facie unfair and to be avoided; but I do not see how unequal distribution of wealth, above that assuring every deserving person of a decent standard of living (considering the kinds and quantity of wealth, technology, materials, inventions, etc. available at the time) is necessarily unfair or bad.
Even minor questions of fairness of distribution can be complex. One day when I picked up my three year old from a nursery school she attended one half-day a week, she was embroiled in a serious “discussion” (tugging match) with another three year old about the proper distribution of toys in the room. He was asserting his right to some toy because he had it first; she was asserting hers on the basis that he had taken two toys and could not play with them both. My wife thought the boy was right; a friend of mine thought my daughter was right and argued “what if he had taken all the toys in the room first? Would that mean no one else could play with a toy?”; I was uncertain about who was right (since he hadn’t taken all the toys) but wished the kids could have talked about it less physically and more rationally since I could see both sides and wish they each could as well. (Wishes don’t have to be what one reasonably could expect to come true.) At any rate, even in questions like this, utilitarianism alone could not have decided what was the correct distribution, if a compromise could not have been reached. Utilitarianism does not always address itself to questions of distribution of good; and where it does, it does not always seem to give the best answer.
10) It seems to me it is wrong, and not just unreasonable, to unnecessarily risk harm in a reckless, negligent, heedless, or irresponsible manner even when no harm actually occurs because of it. For example, I think it is wrong to drive drunk on a freeway or to fire a gun into a crowd, even if you don’t hit anyone. People may disagree about what counts as an unnecessary risk, and thus disagree about whether something such as skydiving or even traveling on a vacation, is wrong or not, but I think the principle itself is correct. The principle does not mean that all risks are wrong, such as investing in (or starting) a business, or such as buying an affordable lottery ticket as a means of entertainment and fantasy, but those which are unreasonably risky, however that might properly be determined.
11) It is wrong to try to inflict needless harm on someone who does not deserve it, even if you fail, and even if you end up causing something good to happen to them. E.g., suppose you try to assassinate someone and fail, but your attempt diverts the intended victim’s itinerary and saves him or her from another planned attempt later that would likely have been successful. Your attempt to assassinate him would still be wrong, even though it actually, by chance, saved his or her life. On utilitarian grounds, your act would have to be called right. That points out a flaw in utilitarianism. The best your wrong act could be called would be fortuitous, not right. You should still be prosecuted for attempted murder.
With the reservations of these kinds of cases though (and I am not saying these are mutually exclusive — they may overlap — nor that they are exhaustive — there may be some other kinds of cases I have not recognized or thought of yet that apply here) it seems to me that utilitarianism in terms of good (that is, causing most good, least harm, or greatest balance of good over evil), not in terms of happiness, is the principle of ethics to begin ethical considerations with. I will argue against some particular ethical principles later that do not take into consideration the amount of good produced in order to determine what acts are right, but briefly here it would seem that a theory of what is right for people to do must in part, at least, involve their doing things that bring about good (prevent evil, etc.) for themselves and others — and the more good and/or for the more people, the better. Any theory which could totally disregard or ignore how much good or how much harm is done or is caused by a given act, seems on the face of it at least to be one that could hardly describe what our obligations are. Certainly, as I have argued in some of my cases against utilitarianism, the total amount of good consequences for the greatest number of people may be overridden by other considerations; but that does not show it never needs consideration or that it should always be overridden. Until someone can develop a theory which encompasses utilitarianism with these counter-cases, it seems to me we should accept it as a place to begin deliberations, keeping in mind these kinds of counter-cases as limitations.
And, to complicate matters, these kinds of counter-cases are not always overriding anyway. These kinds of cases are only warnings not to blindly accept utilitarianism; but they are not sufficient by themselves to reject it, even in situations somewhat similar to the ones discussed. For example, the harm in keeping a particular promise might be so egregious that utilitarianism would justifiably demand such a promise be broken. You have to measure in some way the obligation to keep your promises against the obligation not to do unnecessary harm, and you then have to see which is the overriding obligation. I have no general principle or way as yet to tell automatically how to decide such conflicts — that is conflicts between utilitarianism and the kinds of exceptions mentioned, or even between the kinds of exceptions themselves. For example, does keeping a promise to a stranger override doing a favor a family member requests; should one be loyal to a friend who has done something wrong; if so, what form should that loyalty take?; etc? You need to look at the particular conflicts, deciding what further merits each side might have, keeping in mind that you need to treat reasonably and relevantly similar cases similarly, but making sure cases which seem relevantly similar really are.
My current view about those cases which still leave self-doubt, or which leave disagreement between reasonable, conscientious, understanding people after all available evidence has been considered and carefully scrutinized and attended to, is that it is probably all right to accept either alternative. I believe that in cases that are “too close to call” probably either choice is morally acceptable or right.
And further, even in such cases where one option eventually and unexpectedly appears to produce more good than another, or where an option eventually and unexpectedly produces sufficient good to override a right that was otherwise more important (or produces less good than a right that was otherwise less important), choosing what turns out to be the wrong option will not make one morally culpable. Making a choice based on all the information available at the time does not guarantee that further information, not available at the time of the decision, would not have made one wish he or she had chosen differently. But decisions which turn out to be wrong, though reasonable at the time they were made, do not mean one was bad in making them or that it was morally culpable to make the decision the way one did.
I can encapsulate the general approach in a principle, but that principle is really just intended as a condensed or abbreviated way of saying what I have said so far:
An act is right if and only if, of any act open to the agent to do, its consequences bring about the greatest good (or the least evil, or the greatest balance of good over evil) for the greatest number of deserving people, most reasonably and fairly distributed, as long as no rights or incurred obligations are violated, as long as the act does not try to inflict needless harm on
undeserving people, as long as the act does not needlessly risk harm in a reckless, negligent, heedless, or irresponsible manner, and as long as the act and its consequences are fair or reasonable to expect of the agent.* Rights have to be justified or explained or demonstrated; not just anything called a right is actually a right. Further, the amount of goodness created or evil prevented may, in some cases, be significant enough to legitimately override a right or incurred obligation that a lesser amount of good created or evil prevented may not. Overriding a right or incurred obligation is not the same as violating it.
*What is fair and reasonable to expect of an agent:
It is fair or reasonable for people to do things at little risk or cost to themselves that bring great benefit, prevent great harm, or create a much greater balance of benefit over harm, to others. Apart from cases where an agent has some special higher obligation that he has assumed or incurred, as the risk or cost to the agent increases and/or the benefit to others decreases, an agent is less obligated to perform the act. At some point along these scales, the obligation ceases altogether, though the act may be commendable or “saintly” to voluntarily perform (that is, it may be “over and above the call of duty”). At other points, the act may be so unfair to the agent — may be so self-sacrificing for the agent to perform, even if voluntary, and/or of so little benefit to deserving others, that it would be wrong. (Not every act of sacrifice or martyrdom is all right or acceptable.)
A supermarket checkout line provides ample illustration of many of these principles — a veritable microcosm of ethics in practice. Suppose you have a cart full of groceries and you just happen to beat to the checkout line a person who is carrying only one item, a loaf of bread; and he has ample cash already in his hand. You got there first, so you have some right to go in front of him; but the more polite, and, I think, the right thing to do, other things being equal, would be to let the other person go first for two reasons: (1) utilitarianism — if it takes him 30 seconds to check out and takes you 8 minutes, then if he has to wait for you, it makes two people wait an average of 8 minutes and 15 seconds; but if he goes first it cuts the average down between you to 4 minutes and 15 seconds. If he has to wait for you, more “person-minutes” (as in man-hours) are wasted than if you have to wait for him. (2) You are giving up a little to help him a lot; you are giving up 30 seconds to save him 8 minutes.
But suppose another person appears who is also carrying one item, and the cash to pay for it immediately. And another. The utilitarian position still may make letting them in front of you, thus saving all of you the most collective time, but fairness to you begins to count for something. At some point the burden on you makes it only reasonable that you should take your turn (which after, all you, you have earned anyway) while the others wait. (To help them see this is right, and so they don’t think you are just being selfish or petty or taking selfish advantage of some mere good luck, you might explain you have already let in one or more just like them, and, in fairness to yourself, it is time for you to just go ahead and take your turn.)
Or suppose the person you beat to the register is not carrying cash but is fiddling around searching for his/her checkbook. Now it will take him, not 30 seconds to check out, but maybe two minutes. Plus, there is the aggravation on your part of watching someone write a check for a $1.25 purchase, the kind of thing that almost makes you want to reach in your pocket and just give him/her the money. To give up your turn to him would be less utilitarian, though still collectively utilitarian time-wise, but it would be decidedly more of a burden to you and not save the other person proportionally as much time. I think you have the right to take your turn; though it would be very kind and generous to give up your turn.
Or suppose you just beat someone to the line who has 3/4 the number of items you have. Your getting their first, coupled with the fact that you would have to give up 6 minutes to save him only 8 minutes, allows you to keep the spot, overriding the utilitarian calculation, though you could be generous if you wanted to.
Suppose you just beat in line someone with two full carts. It would perhaps be generous of you to give them your place; but barring some particular reason for it (they are old and frail — and you hate to see them spend 5% of their probably remaining life in the checkout line, or it is a hugely pregnant woman whose labor looks imminent or some other such cradle to grave circumstance) it seems it might be more foolish than generous.
Or suppose, you have been rushing through the store like crazy because you have some sort of time limit (appointment, parking meter, picking up kids at school, darkening sky with jagged lightning and loud thunder growing ever closer, etc.), and having to wait even 30 seconds for the person with the bread and the cash in hand seems like much too long, then utility begins to switch to your side, plus it is your turn, and the cost or risk to you is greater than just “wasting” 30 seconds.
Or oppositely, you just beat someone with a full cart to the line, but the person behind them is a good friend you have not seen in a long time, and it would be fun to visit with them. (Or perhaps “Cosmo” or Reader’s Digest is waiting to tell you, in an article you can read in 5 minutes, how to make your sex life really wonderful, and you don’t want to buy the magazine.) You let the person behind you go first, because now the time you have to spend while waiting for them is not being wasted, but gives you much benefit. Hence, you both benefit by letting them go first; whereas you both lose if you go first.
Or suppose, you do not notice that the person behind you has only one item, and cash in hand; and, instead of politely asking your permission to go ahead of you, they obnoxiously demand to go in front of you because it is going to take you too long. You can stand your ground since they have forfeited their right to any utilitarian consideration. They are not a very innocent or deserving person.
Or suppose there is a long line behind you and someone politely asks if they can go in front of you because they only have one item and cash in hand. Utility may be on their side, but you have an obligation to the people behind you, not to rob their time or penalize them. Their time is not yours to give. (In driving, one periodically sees this kind of case done incorrectly all the time — where some nice but inept driver stops a whole line of cars behind him while he “generously” waits for two cars to pull out from a parking lot onto the road in front of him. This is particularly wrong when they are waiting to turn left, and they cannot pull out anyway because the lane they need to get to is not clear. The driver who stopped to let them out is being generous with his time, but he is also being generous with everyone’s time who is behind him, and he does not have the right to give away their time.)
Or suppose you are behind another person, you both have full carts, and there are many people in front of both of you. You hear the manager call for more “help up front” and you surmise they are about to open another cash register shortly, so you tell the person in front of you, and tell them to go to the only closed register (since there is no line there) and wait for both of you, while you promise to save their place for them in case that register does not open.
If that register does not open, you ought to let them back in front of you, even if they have twice as many groceries as you. (I am assuming there is no one behind you, so that this does not become complicated.)
Or, finally, suppose the last case, but you are the one who moves to the other line and they promise to let you back in front of them if your register never opens. While you are waiting, five people with full carts get in line behind the other person. That situation may override their promise to you about letting you back in.
There are ample chances to do ethical reflections and acts, even in the most mundane situations. One does not need to think of ethics only in cases of life and death, government, high finance, or sex. But let me discuss next a more complex and more difficult case, with far more important consequences. The same kinds of ethical principles and consideration will still apply, though some other factual (including psychological) matters will have to be taken into account.
For example, consider the case of the train, a case of utilitarianism on the one side, opposed to a case of family duty and obligation to self on the other hand. There is more than that, however, that one can say about it. First of all, let me explain about a bad answer a number of people give. They say they could only do one or the other alternative because of the way they would feel after the accident. They can think only of the revulsion to their hearts or conscience of whichever alternative seems worse to them and then say they should opt for the other alternative. But this seems to me like choosing starvation over eating snails or rattlesnake because such food seems so repulsive or like letting someone suffocate because giving mouth- to-mouth resuscitation seems repulsive. It might be best in such a situation to mend one’s “gut” reactions. Surely we can take such reactions or feelings into account, but this also means knowing they might be incorrect or that they might be able to be changed or ameliorated, in time or with some kind of therapy. Either choice would be traumatic indeed, but one often goes on after such a trauma, and particularly if one believes he has done the right thing. There is some solace in acting rightly, even if the choice is a painful one. So the question is what is the right thing and not just the least repulsive thing.
Second, some people say they would not make the decision but would leave it up to fate through a coin flip or through leaving the switch whichever way it was at the time they found it. But that would be an unsuccessful attempt to avoid a responsibility one cannot avoid. Since you know which way the switch is set and since you have the ability to easily change it, the responsibility for changing it or leaving it is yours whether you accept it or simply try to shirk it. Unless there is some compelling reason not to intervene, any situation which you have the knowledge and the power to alter or influence makes you at least in part responsible for its outcome, whether you exercise your power or not.
In the train case, I think there are a number of preliminary ideas to consider before making a final decision. First, there is the difference between the value of an adult spouse’s life and the value of the life of a baby. This is for reasons that I will give shortly; but the recognition of the difference can be seen in choosing between saving the life of a mother or of her unborn child when both cannot be saved but one can. Generally one makes a clear value choice; and even though two people might disagree about whether a mother or baby’s life is more important, I am here arguing only that there is for most people a clear choice, though different people might disagree with each other about which life has the higher value or which life ought to be saved, and though they might disagree about the reasons. Hence, it may turn out that the answer in the train case will be different whether you are considering the life of the 100 people versus that of the baby or considering the life of the 100 people versus an adult spouse. In fact, I believe it will, or should. So although I stated the two cases at the same time (spouse’s or baby’s being on the track), you need to keep in mind they are different cases and may require different results.
Second, I think one needs to consider the value of the life of the person on the track and the probable (or average) value of the lives of the people on the train. I say probable or average value, since if you knew that the train carried only correctly convicted murderers on their way to prison or execution, that would make your decision easy. Or if you knew that the train was full of especially gifted people who had the probable potential for bringing great good into the world, that might also influence your decision. And similarly with regard to your spouse or baby — though with the baby, of course, it can only be an educated guess as to what its life might be like. With regard to your spouse, you have some definite idea of what his or her life is like — how much potential for good or ill he or she has; how deserving in general a person he or she might be, etc. And just as knowing that the train carried only bad people should influence your decision, knowing what your spouse’s life is like should also influence your decision. This will not be the only factor but it should certainly be one factor.
Before going into further detail about this, let me say something about children’s lives and adults’ lives. In Brothers Karamozov, Dostoevsky poignantly makes a plea against the physical and mental abuse, torture, and grief of children, even more than of adults, because children are such innocent victims; and because they have not even eaten much of the apple of life yet and have not tasted the sweetness of its fruit. Adults at least have had some pleasures in life; and also are not necessarily so innocent. One might understand and in some sense tolerate the unfortunate suffering of an adult, but not that of a child. He is speaking of God’s allowing cruelty on earth to children; and he says it is all so unfair, even more unfair than cruelty and sorrow to adults. There is a sense here in which an innocent child’s life might be said to have more right not to suffer or to be snuffed out than an adult’s — because children are more innocent and because children have not yet had the opportunity for joyful experiences that adults have already had.
But now let me say something on behalf of the adult. First I am speaking about a morally worthy or morally good adult — not a cold-blooded murderer or some other heinous person, about whom the choice might be very easy to make if they should be on the track, even if you are married to them, love them, or are simply attracted to them. I am not necessarily talking about some perfectly innocent or guiltless or errorless person, but an innocent enough, normal enough adult human being. It seems to me that often, though such an adult has eaten the apple and has experienced some of life’s goodness, such a person has also put in a tremendous amount of work and suffering to get where he or she is. Further, one may have done most of the work, without yet reaping much of the reward for that work, or without yet fulfilling one’s potential for returning to the world what one has received from it — that is, without yet making the worthy contribution(s) one could. Or conversely one may have fulfilled most of one’s potential for worthwhile achievement or one may be in the position where one has given back most of the good or made most of the worthy contributions one could and/or where one has received most of the kinds of goods and/or amount of good one ever is likely to enjoy. Now there is a difference in the value of the two lives — the one who has suffered much and worked hard and whose potential for giving and receiving good are great in comparison to such work, and in comparison to what one has yet given and received, seems to me to have more desert to continue to live than the one who has already reaped or presented most of the benefits he or she will, in comparison to the work and/or suffering he or she has experienced.
It is, of course, tragic when a child dies, partly because of its unfilled promise and unfilled dreams. But is it not even more tragic when a person dies on the verge of fulfilling a promise or fulfilling a dream! Is there not a special tear for the Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt who does not see the dream finished or the efforts rewarded? Is there not a special sadness for the Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Kennedy who has yet so much to give and to accomplish and who is finally in or near the position to do it? but who is then not allowed to. Is it not more tragic or more sorrowful to see a person die just before or just after graduating from high school or college — so much work put in perhaps; perhaps so little received or accomplished in return? Is it not more sorrowful to see a person die after retiring from a job he did not particularly like and who so looked forward to retirement?
Is it not less tragic somehow to see the death of an older person, who though full of goodness, has filled his dreams and fulfilled his promise. The Winston Churchills, the Bertrand Russells of the world. Their deaths of course are sad; and our loss at their death is great. But their deaths do not seem filled with the kind of sorrow and tragedy the others seem to bring. They are the ones who have truly tasted the apple of life and savored it as fully as anyone can; and they are the ones who have planted and nurtured some apple trees for others to enjoy.
I think life is often hard; and often it is hardest for children; often it is only beyond childhood and into adulthood (at whatever age that may be) that we get to reap the benefits of the hard times we suffer as children, and it is then that we get to do the good or achieve the contribution which it may have been so hard for us to learn how to do.
Hence, it seems to me that we can weigh some more things in making our decision in the train case — things that may make it easier to come to the correct decision. We can guess what hardships our baby (and I specifically made this case involve a baby and not a child or some age and some experience already) will have in growing up. We can know what hardships and what delights our spouse has had and what potential for further hardships and delights they have, both for getting and for bestowing on others. We can guess what the average may be for the people on the train.
Now, of course, we do have a duty to our family; and were there just one or a few people on the train, and were our family deserving people, then that obligation would override, I think, any duty we might have to a stranger or even a few strangers. But I have placed many strangers on the train, to try to balance or possibly override, our normal familial obligation and the value of the lives of some family members. I think in the case of the adult what tips the balance is whether or not the potential for good (both in receiving and in giving) in that person’s life lies more in their future or in their past and whether or not there is much in their future, particularly if their past has been filled with much suffering and hard work in proportion to the amount of joy they have had so far. If they have received more than they will ever give or have had to suffer, and if they have received much, particularly in comparison to what they will receive or “repay” in the future, then perhaps it is time to give other people a chance. But if they have not,then because they are your loved one, and because you are at the switch, you have an overriding obligation, I think, or at least the irreproachable right to be able to save them. No one could fault you for making the choice to save such a loved one; even if they or their loved one were on the train. Certainly you would not fault such a person, even if you or your loved ones were on the train.
The case of the baby is different. I myself feel that though the baby will miss all its potential, of course, if you run over it, that is made up for by the fact that it will also have worked and suffered comparatively little in its young life. I have met others who think such lack of work and suffering is of little matter considering you are destroying all its potential for life and its joy and goodness. Some people do not feel life is all that hard, even for a child, and that children deserve the chance to live and have a chance for the good in life, even if that is at some cost to adults who have already had their chance. I myself think you should save the train rather than the baby; because though you kill the child’s potential for doing and experiencing good, you simultaneously erase his potential for experiencing grief and sorrow. But I realize I see early childhood and early adulthood in a way different from many who feel you should not limit, if at all possible, a baby’s chance for whatever opportunity for good or ill that life holds. I see it as so often a time when you pay your dues, and once those are paid, or in proportion to how much they are paid, tragedy is measured in how much you are made unable to give back and get out what you have worked for, and in some sense, deserve. I think the people on the train deserve that chance, then, more than does a baby, any baby, even your baby. But I think your spouse deserves that chance from you (unless he or she has passed his or her potential or has fulfilled it already, or has never earned it in the first place) more than do all the people on the train.
I am willing to be persuaded, with good reasons, otherwise. In fact, in a sense either action you take, whether to save the baby, spouse, or the train would be right. No sensitive, rational person would judge you harshly no matter what you chose. The decision is so difficult and the options so closely balanced that no option is clearly and convincingly the correct one. Further, this seems to be one of those kinds of cases where no one else can tell another person what he ought to do — that autonomy or liberty in making this decision, because it is so close to call, keeps anyone else’s decision or judgment from being generalizable. What I have done here is to give the considerations I take into account in order to come up with the action I believe right at this time in my life and until I were to hear or figure out reasons to the contrary. The point of this exercise though was to bring to bear upon the case as many relevant ideas on either side as was possible to think of to help balance the weight of the ethical principles of utility versus family duty, duty to self, etc. These principles do not operate alone, but in connection with all the facts and values that apply in the circumstances. Ethics does not operate in a vacuum but requires other knowledge and some perspective about life as well.
But before anyone wants to make too much of this case in terms of infanticide or abortion or whatever, let me say that this is a totally fabricated case, made up intentionally to have few options, and none that are attractive. Real life often has, or could have, more and more attractive options than are available in this case. In considering abortion or abortion policies, for example, there are many, many things to consider — the humaneness of (current) adoption laws and policies, the responsibility one had for becoming pregnant, the risks of carrying to term, the possibility or feasibility of embryo transplant that might terminate the woman’s pregnancy without terminating the embryo’s life, etc. For example, it seems to me that, in considering adoption laws and policies, it would be more humane and better all-around for biological parents to be permitted to contact with their maturing child if they wish, but only have the legal rights that a neighbor or aunt and uncle would have in raising that child. That way they could have as much knowledge and interaction with the child as any non-parental, interested party could have, but they would not have the right to interfere with the adopting parents’ rearing of the child. Such a policy might cut down voluntarily on the number of abortions, since giving up a baby for adoption under those conditions might be a more attractive alternative to abortion than it is today.
Also, say, in opposing the abortion by a mother-to-be who became pregnant in spite of reasonable and responsible birth control and who cannot afford to rear her child reasonably, it seems to me those who would prevent her abortion have some responsibility to overcome her reason for wanting it by helping to see to the child’s at least minimally reasonable financial needs and well-being once it is born.
The train case does not lend itself to much generalization about matters such as abortion because the possibilities in the train case are limited and artificial. The two cases are similar, however, as they are to other ethical problems, in that they involve knowledge and considerations outside of just ethical principles by themselves. When the time comes that embryo transfers are a feasible medical possibility, that will open up new solutions (and different problems). Access or availability of financial, psychological, and other kinds of help with rearing children probably could materially reduce the number of abortions sought or turned to as the only source of remedy. But there are far more things to consider in different kinds of cases of abortion then I want to get into here. I simply did not want my discussion of the train case by itself to be extrapolated into supporting some sort of justification of abortion or of its prevention.
Ethics does require consistency in similar or relevantly similar cases — that is cases where there is not some good reason to accept different principles of behavior. In the train case, you would be irrationally and unfairly inconsistent if you held you should run the train carrying Jones off the cliff in order to save your wife, but that Jones should run over his wife in order to save a train with you on it — and you can point to no morally relevant difference between you and Jones or between his wife and yours. You would not be being rational but would be rationalizing. Whereas if you hold that you and Jones should each save your own wives, even if you are on the train that he runs off the cliff, then you are taking a stand with regard to a principle and are not just acting on a selfish whim or rationalization. One of the ways of telling whether you are being rational or just rationalizing is to ask whether you would want others to follow the same principles you would if your situation and theirs were reversed. This does not test whether your principle is right or not, just whether it is a principle you hold out of logic and believed merit, or solely out of its personal circumstantial appeal and benefit to you.
In the train case, a number of my students in the past, when first confronted with the question, see a great difference between what they think they would do and they think they should do. This happens quite often to us when we are confronted with, or when we think about being confronted with, certain situations that seem to require an ethical decision, particularly ones that are difficult or that require sacrifice. Often what we do, or what we want to do or what we think we would do, is different from what we think we should do. I think it is important in such cases to try to make your “shoulds” (as a friend of mine calls your feelings of obligation) coincide, or line up, with your desires, or with what you think you would do. Don’t just dismiss the situation by simply ignoring either your moral feelings or your desires. Often we do the right thing without knowing the justification for it, and we then feel guilty because we vaguely think some other act would have been more justifiable, when in fact it would not have. This is not to say we are all, or that anyone is, always moral without thinking about it or without knowing it. It is only to say that sometimes we can be wrong about what we think is the moral thing to do, particularly when we have not actually explicitly weighed the facts and values that show the justification. And oppositely, sometimes you will find, when you find there is no way to justify your desires, that those desires will actually diminish. Trying to settle the conflicts between your vague feelings of obligation and your feelings of desire will often help you find out there is not really a conflict after all, and that what you really want and what you really ought to do are one and the same.
To say that a principle is generalizable is not to say that it applies to all people in all situations, but only to relevantly similar people in relevantly similar situations. (This is not only sensible ethics, but is true in other areas, such as medicine as well; which medicine, and how much, a doctor ought to prescribe depends on the ailment, age, size, allergies, etc. of his or her patient. A doctor does not “treat” all patients the same, but only those with the same illness and physical conditions, etc.) In ethics relevant factors can usually be reasonably discovered and discussed. I think also that numbers alone, can sometimes be a relevant factor. If thirty students is the maximum number for a certain teacher’s being able to teach a certain course well, then allowing a 31st student to add the course would be wrong. This would also contradict the claim someone might incorrectly make who held that if you let Smith into a course late (as the 30th student), then you have to let in whoever else wants to add the course late as well. When I was a college academic counselor, I one day had an argument with the chairman of the English department about the rightness of allowing a woman (who worked and who had children to care for, etc.) to take a particular course at a particular hour in which it was offered that was a course she needed to go on in the field, and whose particular class in question was the only one being taught that term that she could feasibly work into her schedule. The class section was closed to additions; it had its quota of 25 students. I pleaded for this one particular addition on the grounds of utility for this particular person. The chairman admitted that one or so more students would not hurt the teacher’s or class’s performance, but still wanted to deny the admission on the grounds that if he let this particular student add the course to her schedule, he would have to let everyone who wanted it add it to theirs too. I said that was not true, that we would then only have to add everyone, up to the maximum (for teaching purposes) number who had such relevantly worthy circumstances as hers. She got the course.
In one of my classes there was some disagreement, if a student wanted to enroll in my course well after the term had started (and thus would have to be tutored by me to catch up), whether it was right or fair for me to accept a student I took an immediate liking to, and turn down those I did not. I thought it was right, since there was no obligation to accept anyone in such circumstances and that if I were going to have to put in extra work in order to do so to help the student catch up, I should be able at least simply to pick those for whom I thought my burden would be less.
It is simply not true that everyone should be allowed or denied what someone might be permitted or denied. Only those with relevant similarities under relevantly similar conditions need to be treated similarly — the point is to determine which similarities and conditions are relevant and which are not. Sometimes it may be numbers alone; sometimes, not. Another kind of case involving numbers alone might be that of not walking on the grass of a scenic area. The point is not to ruin the grass by wearing it down. If thirty people per day won’t wear it down, then those thirty should get to walk on it — or if it can be walked on till it ceases to be resilient, then those who can walk on it while it is still resilient should be allowed to. This is why Immanuel Kant’s deontological (that is, formal or procedural) maxim of doing only what you could will that everyone could do is an inappropriate one, I think. It is usually voiced in the rhetorical question “what if everyone did that?” You only need to generalize or universalize insofar as people are in the same relevant circumstances. If everyone made love to the same woman or man, that might be bad, but that does not make it wrong for their spouse or someone they desire to. Or for the first thirty people to take the above course or walk on the grass. The fact something would be wrong for everyone collectively to do does not make it wrong for some individuals or small numbers to do. The fact that no more than 20 people should ride in an elevator at one time does not mean one person, or the first 20 to get into it, should not. Figuring out the relevant circumstances is part of doing moral reasoning, and figuring them out is another thing that will help you see whether you are actually doing moral reasoning or just making rationalizations.
Fairness: it seems wrong to me that one should always do things for the greatest number if that means always having to deny one’s own needs or desires. For example, one day I seemed to keep driving by stranded motorists near their broken down cars. The first one I changed a tire for; the second one I took to get gas; the third one I had to just ignore since I was beginning to run late for my own duties. There were plenty of other passing drivers who could help; I had already done my share for that day. Hence, consideration of fairness — fair distribution of benefits and burdens — might at times override considerations of utility in a particular situation. Even had there been more than one person in that third car, as long as it was not an emergency situation I think I was under no obligation to stop again to help them.
Suppose your spouse wants to go to a movie this evening, but you really don’t want to go — tired, bad day, not in the mood, don’t want to spend the money, etc. These considerations alone may be sufficient to veto your accompanying your spouse to the movie; but not if the situation is always this way — you always win on the basis of utility alone, and therefore never go to the movie. It seems to me that fairness would dictate that you should go to the movies sometimes even though you have other reasons not to go, reasons which in an isolated case would be sufficient grounds not to go. I think the moral of this kind of story for relationships is that it is better to give in to your mate or friend at times when you can, so that at times when it would really bother you to do things your mate or friend’s way, utility alone can win the day for you, rather than having it instead be overridden by considerations of fair distribution (that is, in this case, having to do what you do not want to do so the other person can do what he or she wants to do because it is their “turn”). The fairness part of the condensed version of the “Ethical Principle” given earlier should be understood in this overall sense, not as applying just to individual cases of risk or cost to the agent.
Now concerning deciding just utility alone for a particular situation, it is imperative that you are able to explain just how important a particular action or desire may be to you — and to understand how important a particular action or desire may be to someone else — since the value of the stifling of a desire or the value of the fulfillment of a desire counts as part of the consequences one must consider in calculating utility. (It is only part because, for example, a child may not want to eat vegetables, but his desires are overridden by considerations of the consequences for his health. We don’t always know or want what would be best for us.) Describing the importance of your desires is sometimes difficult since we do not have a standard measurement or vocabulary of measurement of the strength of feelings. However, one can give some fairly clear indication about how one feels about something in helping to discuss and to mutually decide a case on the basis of utility that involves who has the stronger desires or dislikes about a certain course of action. You might say something like “Remember how we both felt after moving into this apartment last year? Well that is how I feel after what I went through at the office today. I couldn’t go to that movie for anything.” Or you might describe what your day was like, verbally recreating the circumstances that made you feel like you do, so that the other person can get a pretty good idea of how you must feel, given what you went through. If you each do this kind of thing, this should help you both better understand how important your individual desires are at this particular time; and this should help you mutually decide which choice will be the most utilitarian (that is, give the greatest benefit). It might also give the other person some clue how to change your mood and attitude or desire — “You must be exhausted (frustrated, angry, tense, whatever) after a day like that; why don’t you take a nap (soak in the tub, listen to some serene Mozart, go hit some tennis balls against the practice wall) for an hour or so while I fix your favorite dinner. If you feel up to it then, maybe we could catch the late show. If not, I understand. Some other time.”
In cases where equal desires oppose each other, where desires cannot be easily changed, where utilitarian consequences other than desires are also equal, and where considerations of fairness (concerning past “giving in”) are also indecisive, then some sort of compromise or impartial decision needs to come into play. If there are two tasks to be done which neither wants to do, each should do one and a coin could be flipped to see who does which. If the question is a movie or single event or some such, a coin might be flipped, with the winner getting his or her way that time and giving the other person her or his way the next time, alternating each time. Or you can flip a coin each time.
The point is, in deciding disagreements over choices, two people should consider the utilitarian consequences for themselves and each other, should determine if fairness or any other “prior” right overrides such consequences, and if there is still no right answer to be shown by logic, then some impartial and fair method needs to be employed such as flipping a coin or drawing straws or whatever. As long as each side is generally concerned about the other’s feelings and well-being, as long as each side is aware of that, as long as each side is able to state the kinds of considerations that logically justify its position, and as long as each side is able to understand and appreciate those statements when made by the other, most disputes or disagreements should be able to be worked out in an amiable and civilized manner.
Two Kinds of Utilitarianism
Philosophers distinguish two kinds of utilitarianism: (1) act utilitarianism and (2) rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism is what I have been discussing, is what is perhaps closest to the ordinary idea of doing ethics, and is, to my way of thinking, the more correct form of utilitarianism, when there is any real difference between the two forms. Act utilitarianism looks only at particular acts and says that a particular act is right if and only if it is the act open to the agent which creates the most good consequences, least bad ones, or greatest balance of good ones over bad ones for the greatest number. Rule utilitarianism is more like the law to some extent, and is an outgrowth of some of the problems that confront act utilitarianism such as the one previously mentioned where act utility might dictate breaking a promise in order that more people might have more fun, even though our intuitions make us certain that breaking a promise for that reason would be wrong. Hence, rule utilitarianism says that an act is right if and only if it conforms to a rule, and the rule is right if and only if always obeying it, rather than always obeying some alternative rule, leads to the greatest amount of good (least bad or good over evil) for the greatest number. Hence, rule utilitarians say that breaking the above kind of promise for the reasons given is wrong because it is for the most good overall for people to obey a rule “always keep a promise,” whether or not there may be particular occasions that would cause more good to break a promise. The law is like this in that supposedly one should always obey the law even if on particular occasions it might cause more good not to — for example, coasting through a stop sign when it is perfectly clear there is no pedestrian or cross- traffic at the intersection. Rule utility says to decide cases on the basis of rules and to decide the rules on the basis of their utility. Act utility says to decide all cases on the basis of their particular utility, treating relevantly similar cases, of course, in the same ways.
But since there is no reason to think rules need to be overly simple or devoid of built-in exceptions or special cases, it seems to me there is no reason to need to have rules which you know will give the wrong answers in some cases just for the sake of having rules. For example, there is no reason to have a rule that everyone should keep off the grass if it would do just as well to have a rule that everyone should stay off the grass when it is not being resilient — when it is just lying down instead of springing back. I believe it is wrong to have a rule which is so broad or so narrow that you know it will lead to incorrect acts in particular circumstances. If a rule is to be the best rule, then it seems to me it should be the rule that also incorporates all the necessary exceptions in it. This then, it seems to me, would then give all the same answers as would act-utilitarianism since it would be the rule that would maximize utility (greatest good…for the greatest number) in each and all (kinds of) cases. Any less exact form of a rule utilitarianism seems to be wrong in that it is inferior to act utilitarianism and will in some cases mandate that we do the wrong act on grounds of utility alone. But, of course, any rule utilitarianism which gives the same results as act utilitarianism is open to the same criticism I listed earlier of act utilitarianism (that is, the cases labeled 1-11 earlier). Hence, it would be wrong to have rules like “never lie” or “never break promises” because there are cases where it is better to lie or to break a promise; and the rule should therefore spell out the exceptions like “never break a promise except when keeping it would cause some grievous harm not realized when making the promise, or when…,” etc.
Consider the case in the poem Casey at the Bat. Suppose after the third strike Casey were to ask the umpire for four strikes, instead of three, on the basis that if he were called out it would really upset the fans. Now suppose the umpire argues that baseball is a rule utilitarian game; that is, particular cases come under particular rules (in this instance “the batter is out after three strikes”) and the rules are decided on utility. Some philosophers say this is in fact the case. I do not think so. For certainly there could be a rule which says “a player is out after three strikes unless he is very popular and needs a fourth chance.” This would be wrong, of course, but not because of utilitarian grounds, either act or rule utilitarianism. Rather it would be wrong because it would be unfair to other players and because it would undermine any significance to the game, since there would be no grounds for comparing different teams or players since they would be playing under different conditions. Giving Casey four strikes would not be right, but not because of utilitarianism, act or rule.
Further, morality is not a game and not like the law. If a moral rule precludes an act that is right or requires an act that is wrong, then it is an incorrect moral rule, even if in general it gives the correct results. “In general” is simply not good enough. Some laws may have to be kept unfairly simple to be practically enforceable; or it may be necessary for consistency, stability, or management reasons to enforce the system, even with some bad laws in it, rather than to pick and choose between the good and bad laws. But morality requires right always to be done, and not sometimes to be ignored because of practicality of enforcement, social usefulness, ease of deciding culpability in wrong-doing, etc.
Professions and organizations often are guilty of having rules that are over-simple, rules of conduct or of professional “ethics”. Although such rules often have a point or some reason, still they often require the wrong acts and cause the wrong results in many cases. A number of television shows and movies often make use of situations where conflict arises because the actually right act is the “unprofessional” one. Television teacher Lucas Tanner one time helped save a depressed girl student from suicide by talking with her late into the night when her parents were away from home. However, because he took her home at 2 a.m. (she was a high school student of his) and was seen by the parents doing this, and because he would not tell why he had been with her so late, since the girl had spoken to him confidentially about something she did not want her parents to know which would have got her in trouble of a different sort, he was brought up on charges of unprofessional or wrong behavior. Danny Thomas, as the doctor on his show “The Practice” was accused of unprofessional conduct when he purposely caused a depressed female patient to fall in love with him because he felt she would otherwise not have the necessary will to survive surgery she needed. He had unsuccessfully tried a more verbal and rational direct appeal to elevate her spirits earlier. In these cases the unprofessional conduct was the right conduct because the “professional” codes contained bad, overly broad, rules. None of this is to argue that teachers should date their students or that doctors should seek for their vulnerable patients to fall in love with them in general. It is easy to see numerous situations that would turn out badly if these were standard practices. It is only to say (1) actual ethics should take precedence over professional codes, which are often oversimplified ethical standards, or not really ethical standards at all, (2) in cases where ethical standards and professional codes conflict, ethics should prevail, and (3) professional codes should incorporate allowances for such special circumstances and should incorporate mechanisms or processes by which those allowances can be sought or recognized and achieved. When intentionally violating a professional rule, one should understand the general rationale for the rule and be able to demonstrate why that rationale does not pertain in the case at issue and why the professional rule, if followed, would lead to the wrong or undesirable results. And professions should be flexible enough to appreciate and accommodate reasonable and conscientious disagreements and conflicts with their general policies.
Some people seem to think that professional distance means you do not have to show normal decency, kindness, friendly behavior, etc. to others. I hold this to be wrong. There is sometimes a point to professional distance in order to be fair and objective in dealing with students, employees, colleagues, patients, clients, etc.; but distance does not mean discourtesy, incivility, or inhumanity. And I am not always certain professional distance is not just a poor excuse to keep from getting involved when one actually should get involved with another. If one would not treat his friends like he treats his patients or customers, maybe one should begin to treat his patients and customers more like he would treat his friends insofar as time and energy permit and insofar as there is no special practical reason not to.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule is probably not meant the way it is usually understood and applied. As it is usually understood and applied, it is often a wrong and harmful “formal” rule. As it is usually understood, it implies first that what you like or think you should have is what others also like or think they should have. Second it implies that a person should be treated the way he or she wants to be treated. Neither is always the case. Certainly how a person would like to be treated needs to be taken into consideration, but it is not the only consideration. A murderer might like to have royal treatment, but he may not deserve it. A madman may like to have nuclear weapons, but he should not be able to have them. A three year old may not want to take a nap, eat vegetables, take a bath, or go to bed at a reasonable hour, but those wishes ought not always to be honored. People may want drugs but that may not be good for them. People may want to watch mindless sports or mindless movies all the time, but that too may not be good for them. There are all kinds of things that people may want that they ought not to have. There are things to take into consideration in many cases besides what people want.
Further, the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” — assumes that what you want or don’t want is what others want or don’t want as well. But certainly other people do not always want the same things we want. Parents often force their children to do things they wish others had forced on them as children — but though that might have been the right thing for them as children, it may not be right for their children and it may not be what their children want or would want. A person with some musical talent may wish his parents had made him continue piano lessons when he was younger; but that is not good enough reason to force his child, who may have no musical talent or interests, to continue piano lessons. Teachers and academic or vocational counselors sometimes incorrectly force or talk their students into taking fields of their own interests rather than fields more in line with the students’ interests. At least utilitarianism takes into account, in consideration of how to treat others, what others want (and whether that is good for them and for everyone), not just what you (would) want. And the cases mentioned in opposition to utilitarianism also take into account what is fair for others (and everyone else affected) as well as what is best. One could imagine a rapist giving the Golden Rule as a defense of his actions: “Well I would have wanted her to rape me.” (Or “I would not have wanted her to pass by without raping me.”) (I do not consider there to be any difference between the positive and negative form of the rule because almost any act can be described using either form; it may just sound a little stilted or odd stated in one form rather than the other.)
It seems to me that the Golden Rule, however, was more likely intended to mean something like “Consider other people’s feelings the way you would consider your own,” or “Do not forget that other people have feelings and concerns just the way you do, so do not ignore their feelings and concerns when deciding how to act.” This is good insofar as it goes, but it does not tell us all the considerations we need to take into account in deciding what act is right in a given situation. As I have just pointed out, people’s feelings or desires often need to be outweighed by other factors. A rule that is meant to be “the” (only or main) principle of ethics would need to be much more complete than the Golden Rule is.
And like the Golden Rule, the fiats to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to “love, and do as you will,” are neither specific nor helpful, and may be wrong or harmful in many cases where good intentions lead to bad results. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” is not without some justification. Love, in terms of feelings or concern alone, does not insure right conduct toward the loved one or toward anyone. Rather than love’s being a guide to ethics, I have been arguing that ethics — right behavior — is a part of love (as well as an important part of other relationships). If you do not treat people right, they, regardless of what they feel for you (even if it is some kind of attraction), cannot have love for you. And if others do not treat you right, whatever you feel for them (even if it is some kind of attraction) cannot be love. But loving someone does not imply you will treat them right. And I think it does not necessarily even imply that you will try to, let alone that you will succeed. However, you do have responsibilities and obligations to try to do what is best for your family members and for friends, people with whom you have grown interdependent, who depend on you and help you out at times with some sacrifice to themselves, children who are in your care. This is an ethical obligation or responsibility, not one dependent on love or something as uncertain, unpredictable, and possibly ephemeral as feelings. Such responsibilities and obligations might be overridden by higher obligations, but they ought not be dismissed for no good reason or just because one is simply no longer “in love” (for example, “magically attracted”) or no longer feels like fulfilling them.
Responsibility and neglect of obligation
In one of my classes someone made the point that (in the book of Job God was not responsible for Job’s misfortune — the devil was. God only let the devil do it. However, on both models or concepts of responsibility described earlier in the section on free will, God was still responsible in that He could have prevented the catastrophe had He chosen to (and He could have chosen to). Likewise the doctor who could perform either a successful abortion or a successful delivery. He is responsible for whatever he chooses, since he could have done either, and he could choose either. In this sense he is playing God either way, not just when he acts “actively” to perform the abortion. He is responsible either way. And it is no good answer in ethics to say in such cases we should do the “natural thing” or just let nature take its course; since if we did natural things we would still be living in the jungles, still be eating with our fingers, still be doing without diapers and toilet training for our children, and without toilets for ourselves. We would not be using vaccines to prevent disease or antibiotics to cure it. Since probably most of what we do and think right is not natural, it is hard to argue in certain difficult or controversial cases that the natural thing is therefore the right or obligatory thing simply because it is natural.
The modern way to try to shirk responsibility is through deference to rules, company policy, regulations, the law, or through supposed delegation of responsibility to a committee or to another person, group, or department. Actually one can only pretend to avoid responsibility these ways because the point remains that if you have the capability to change the outcome or to control or even to influence the committee or the other people, you have the responsibility to try, or to have a good reason not to have to try. You cannot simply say, it is not in your hands, because that is not true. Saying something is not your responsibility does not make it true. And having something not be part of your job description does not alone prevent it from being your moral responsibility.
Goodness of Persons vs. Rightness of Acts
This is an important distinction. People can try to do right without succeeding, and they may be responsible in various ways for omitting to do something that ought to be done, without in either cases thereby being evil or morally bad. I am not sure I know all the things that make a person a good one (for whatever instance or amount of time is in question) but some qualities that come to mind are their being conscientious, responsible, trying to do right things, trying to figure out what things are right, being concerned about and considerate of other people’s feelings, etc. I don’t know whether being loving in terms of feelings would count. I doubt it. Seems more a character trait or psychological trait rather than strictly a moral trait. Anyway, good people can do, and often in fact do, wrong things when they are trying to do right; and bad people can do right things (though this is probably rarer) even though they are trying to be selfish, vindictive, or spiteful at the time. Since it is necessary to know a person’s rationale, motives, and intentions to determine whether he is good or bad or not, it is wise to exercise extreme caution in making such judgments, since these are usually harder to know than just whether his action is right or wrong. It is usually easier to judge the rightness of acts, since the act can be seen, than to judge the goodness and badness of persons. You can hold that someone is being wrong without accusing him of being a bad person; and this can often help you get your point across without his becoming too defensive to see it. In some cases there will be clear-cut malevolence intended, but in most cases in life among civilized people it will be difficult to tell whether the perpetrator of wrong acts is malevolent or incompetent or simply misguided, myopic, or incidentally ignorant, though well-intentioned. Until you can prove otherwise, it is often better to assume mistake rather than malevolent intent. It is generally better — because more tactful and more effective at least to begin pointing out a problem by saying something like “I don’t think this is the right thing to do because….” than to say something like, “How could you be so selfish (mean, stupid, or whatever)….”
The Ethics of Caring
In line with the preceding paragraph, it seems to me that an “ethics of caring”, which is something of a recent theory of ethics advocated by some, does not necessarily point out the right thing to do. It is a good thing to care about people, but it is also a good thing to care about doing what is right for people whether you care about them — i.e., have any personal feelings for them over and above humane feelings you would have for anyone – or not. In some cases, one’s feelings for another can even override one’s judgment in a harmful way. It may be that having personal feelings toward another person will make one work harder to try to figure out what is right and to try to do it, but it is not clear that is more likely to lead to knowledge about what is right than will simply caring about doing the right thing. It is probably true that caring about people whether in a special way or even just in a humane way, along with treating them right is better than just treating them right. But it is not clear that caring will help one know the right acts to do; and if the choice were between being treated right by someone who didn’t care and being treated wrong by someone who did care but was mistaken, I think I would prefer to be treated right without compassion than wrong with it. Of course, in a situation where no one can actually solve your problems or help you, then compassion will be preferable than lack of it, but compassion by itself is not a guide to determining what is right in a given situation. It may only help you be more diligent in seeking what is right, but is no guarantee you will find it.
Usually attributed to Aristotle (I believe mistakenly), “virtue ethics” is the view that there are certain virtues, such as loyalty, integrity, truthfulness, etc. that let us act rightly. Aristotle did point out that ethics consisted of doing what is right and not just knowing what is right to do, and that without the proper cultivation and practice of virtuous behavior, people might not do what they know in their minds they should. But Aristotle thought that the virtues to be developed were those which one discovered through reason, and once one discovered them, then one should cultivate or practice them so that they became easier to do when necessary. The modern theory however seems to assume that there are certain virtues which are the right way to behave under all circumstances; e.g., never lie, always be loyal, etc. Aristotle would, I am pretty sure disagree with that, and think that such a principle led to extremes rather than to the golden mean, that he thought most virtues represented. For example, undercover police agents need to lie to do their work. Similarly spies. But I think it is also okay to lie when doing so will cause only good but telling the truth will do only harm. Particularly in cases where one is trying to build confidence in, say, a child, and the lie will help that but the truth will undermine it. So, for example, one might tell a child s/he looks good in some outfit that is not all that attractive on him/her, but is not so bad that others will poke fun and prove you to have lied. That is particularly true if your child’s confidence will help him/her actually seem more attractive to others than would a better outfit that the child does not feel confident wearing. Or, in teaching children to ride a bicycle, I lie to them about not letting go because otherwise they will not even let me help them learn to ride. I don’t let go until I know they can balance the bike, and I have them ride on grass at the time I do let go. Invariably after they have ridden some fifteen feet on their own, they will notice I am not with them and they will fall over, and be angry that I let go. But when I point out how far they got on their own after I had let go, and tell them they can ride their bicycle now by themselves, they immediately get over their anger and want to ride by themselves again. So I think lying about not letting go is a good lie that is right to tell. Or consider loyalty. Clearly blind loyalty to someone like Hitler or to someone out to make money at any cost to others is not a good kind of loyalty and is not right to have. I would argue that the only thing that makes something a virtue is that it is right to do, not that any act is right because it fits into a category that is simply considered to be a virtue. While truth telling and loyalty are often right ways to behave, that does not mean they are always the right thing to do. And if a normally virtuous behavior would in some particular instance only cause significant harm and its opposite behavior would instead achieve much good, then it seems pretty clear to me that it is not the right thing to do in that particular case, and is not a “virtue” then.
The problems with principles which rely on conscience telling you or anyone what is right are that (1) conscience can be wrong — conscience usually has more to do with good intentions and is satisfied with them than with whether acts really are right or not. Also (2), some people’s consciences are more easily satisfied than others and then they ought to be. Many former Nazis had, and many still have, clear consciences about their acts. This is not to say that people who follow principles cannot be wrong; it just does not make their wrong be right. As I mentioned earlier, principles should not say a right act is one that you think does the greatest good, keeps a promise, or whatever; principles should say a right act is one that in fact does the greatest good, keeps a promise, or whatever. Otherwise for an act to be right, a person only has to think he is doing the right thing; he would not have to actually be doing the right thing. In the case of conscience, this translates into the only requirement for an act’s being right is for the person performing it to have a clear conscience, for whatever reason, about it. You could never then say anything, without being contradictory, like “I know you think that was the right thing and I know your conscience is clear about what you did, but what you did was wrong.” Any principle or theory which makes that kind of statement contradictory is a flawed one.
Doing Right When It Is Not In Your Own Self Interest
Why do the right thing when it is not in your own self-interest? Why make sacrifices you can never regain? The initial answer is because it is in someone else’s interest; because it brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of deserving people, because it keeps a promise; because it … — any of the reasons that justify the act in the first place. Some then ask, but why do it anyway? Why be moral? This is a moral question that seems to require a non-moral answer, since the moral answer will have then already been given. I do not know that a good nonmoral answer to this question can or needs to be given. If a morally blind or insensitive person wants to know what the point is in being moral, how can you show him? Is it not like a blind person’s asking to be explained the difference between blue and red? It cannot be explained to him; not because there is no explanation, but because he cannot “see” it or understand it. The difference between blue and red is a difference in color, and you can only perceive and understand that difference if you can see different colors. If the blind person then asks for the difference besides that or beyond that, there is no satisfactory answer; and there need not be one. Perhaps to explain the point of morality or of being moral (whether it is in our own self-interest or not) we can only answer with Batman’s tautology in one comic that “Good is better than evil, Robin.”
I have lately come to believe there is another answer that can also be given, which is that by doing the right thing, even when it is not in your own best interest, you make yourself a more “deserving” person — a person more deserving of having good happen to you. Now, just being deserving does not, of course, mean that good will actually happen to you, but it means it should. And just as in some metaphysical sense “good is better than evil”, it is also, in some metaphysical way, better to be a deserving person than not to be one. Deserving people are better in some way than undeserving people. And it is better to be deserving even if you are not necessarily then better off — meaning even if you do not benefit in the way you deserve.
In one of my ethics classes one time, the students felt that it was right to keep money that you found instead of giving it back to the person who had lost it. One woman even remarked that she had found a purse with cash in it once and returned it all intact to the person who had lost it, and that she felt guilty about that because she thought she should have kept the money. I disagreed with them and we argued periodically about it throughout the term. They also held a view that seemed to me to be oddly inconsistent with their view about keeping found money, though they saw no inconsistency. They believed that if someone they did not know was about to accidentally leave their purse or wallet when they left a restaurant or library or any such place, that they should tell the person so that they did not lose it. They believed they were entitled to keep lost money, but they had an obligation to help people who were still within sight not lose their money. So they had an obligation to prevent money from being lost, even though it could be theirs the second it was lost, but they had no obligation to return lost money to anyone.
The last point I made that term was that if they held the view they did about not having to return lost money, they could then neither expect nor demand that anyone should return any money they themselves might lose. I said that I thought that if they were not willing to return found money, then they did not deserve to have any money they lost returned to them. I also pointed out that I thought that it was just not as good to live in a community where people did not unselfishly help each other as it was to live in a community where people did help each other, even if that meant you were the one who often helped others but did not necessarily need or receive help in return. That was about as far as I could take this then, and now, except to point to a story that was once on either Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock or a series like those.
In that story a stranger comes one evening to the door of a married couple, bringing with him a briefcase that contains a fortune in cash (at the time of the show, it was a million dollars, but with inflation would today be much more). He will leave the briefcase with them for 24 hours, returning to pick it up tomorrow, and they may keep the money or give it back to him when he comes. He will take back the briefcase either empty or still full of the money, whichever they decide; it does not matter to him. The only catch is that if they keep the money, someone they do not know, somewhere in the world will die who would not otherwise have died that day.
The couple falls to arguing about what they should do, and most of the episode is taken up with their arguments. They finally decide to keep the money, since, they figure, one more death among the thousands of people who die every day throughout the world will be of no real consequence, and since it is not as though that person would live forever otherwise anyway.
The man returns to pick up the, now empty, briefcase, and as he is about to leave they ask him why he wants it, since the value of the case is insignificant compared to the value of the money. Why bother coming back for the briefcase? He responds that he needs it back because he is going to put another million dollars in it and take it to someone who does not know them.
Two Closing Thoughts About Ethics
1) I think ethics takes precedent or should take precedent over all other things in life. Business, political, governmental, military, or whatever considerations should (and actually do) all come secondary to ethical considerations. You cannot suspend acting ethically for any of these things or for any reason though you may try or may pretend to or may think you can. Of course, certain choices may be difficult and have compelling reasons or obligations on both sides. There can often be disagreement among good, intelligent, well-meaning people. But the point is that you must try to determine what the morally correct answer is, and not just ignore that in order to “follow orders”, “obey rules”, “abide by the decision of the committee”, “do [your] job”, or “not make waves.” These kinds of reasons may be overriding or sufficient justifications in some cases, but they are not necessarily always or automatically so.
I think all our choices have a moral component or character, though not all our deliberations or decisions recognize this. We do not always take morality into account in making our choices. Not thinking at all; being blind to all but one side; peer pressure; habit; fashion; fad; social, governmental, or employer pressure; tradition; parental guidance; religious prescriptions, etc., particularly when they are not perceived as influencing our decisions, often make us choose things without considering whether they are really right or not. This is often very unfortunate.
(2) Do ethics. Do it as Socrates did; discuss, analyze, question, explain, try to guide others to see what you see and try to remain open to seeing what they do. Help others show you what they know if they are not as good at explaining their views and their insights as you might be. Help draw out of them what they really think, so that you both can analyze it and scrutinize it to see whether it holds up. This way both of you can learn what is right and what is not, and why. As with Socrates, even if you only find out what you do not know, you will be the wiser for it; for it is better to know what you do not know than to believe untruths.
But do it, as did Socrates, tactfully and nicely and in honest search for truth, not contemptuously, abusively, or arrogantly. Even then, you will not be universally loved. Socrates made enemies and was ultimately condemned to death essentially for practicing philosophical inquiry. And even in supposedly civilized places today, people do not always take kindly to being questioned or to having someone disagree with them on ethical grounds. (People seem to feel they are all expert enough in moral matters and do not like to have their expertise challenged. Or perhaps they misconstrue challenge of the rightness of their ideas as challenge of their own goodness or good intentions.) They are not likely to put you to death for it anymore, but often they can make your life miserable for it. You need to be circumspect with many people and only to discuss or disagree about important issues with them. With others it is safe to discuss all kinds of ideas about ethics. The more you can do it with different people, the more your knowledge of ethics can grow and the better morally you can become.
Added Section with General Principle Amended
In some of my ethics courses, a set of questions I posed for discussion was:
You and a group of 9 others, all innocent friends of yours, are invaded and captured by a hostile group of evil people who tell you that you must choose and kill one of the others or they will kill you. What should you do and/or say in response? and why?
What if they had said instead that you must choose and kill one of your friends or they will kill all of them (or all of you) and that the choice and responsibility for everyone’s’ lives is yours? What should you do and/or say in response? and why? Explain and justify your answer.
I believe my answer, to these questions, along with some of the points I make in “The Flaw of Legalism in Society and Education” show there is a problem with the way utilitarianism is often stated1, and with my own ethical principle, which contains some utilitarian aspects, though with many restrictions or qualifying conditions2.
I would say this to the captors in both cases, and the justification for saying it is given in the answer itself:
A person who would give me such a choice is so evil as not to be trusted to tell the truth. If you would kill innocent people, you would lie, since lying is itself the lesser evil. So from where I stand, no matter what I do, my life and the lives of everyone here are in your hands, and you will likely kill me or all of us anyway. You only want the satisfaction of first turning me into the monster that you are, so that I will die as evil and as weak as you are.
You can say I am responsible for the choice, but that is not true, since it is an artificial responsibility imposed by you and that is within your control and responsibility. You can kill me or us if you wish, and I cannot prevent that, but I can prevent you from making me your accomplice; I can prevent you from turning me into the same evil scum that you will be if you kill any innocent person. These people are all innocent and do not deserve to be murdered. It is better to die an innocent and deserving person than to be someone who kills them and who is thus neither innocent nor deserving. Do what you wish; choose whatever kind of person you wish to be, and become that kind of person. The choice is yours to be decent and civilized or to be even more reprehensible and evil than you were in giving me this choice.
If you have killed innocent people before or forced them to be killed, I cannot undo that and neither can you, but you have a chance here to turn your life around in at least some small way and become less evil than you will otherwise be. If you have not killed or forced a killing like this before, you do not need to start now. The choice is not mine; it is yours.
The Problem for Utilitarianism
If, for the sake of argument and explanation here, that the captors, evil as they otherwise are, are people of their word, who will in fact let you and everyone else live if you kill one of your friends, it still seems quite wrong for you to kill a friend or to choose someone to be killed in order to save the others. Or if we take a slightly different case – you are asked by the Nazi SS if you know where a Jew is hiding, and you do, should you risk being killed by the SS or should you turn in the Jew that is hiding? Even if turning in the Jew protects you and your family, it seems incorrect to say it would be morally right to turn in the Jew. It may be expedient; it may be necessary to protect yourself and your family, it may be understandable and perhaps even excusable, but it hardly seems right or the appropriate terminology to refer to it as being the morally right thing to do.3
Or take the case of standing up for an unpopular cause and risking ostracism and all the ills, social and economic, that may accompany it. Even if it is understandable that one might back away from defending the cause, that does not seem to make doing so right, and it would not make it wrong to defend the cause even if you and your family suffer for it.
In the previously mentioned essay about legalism I quote the following from President George
Washington’s Farewell Address:
“Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
And I then say:
“ And I suspect, but cannot prove, that what Washington had in mind here is that there needs to be some role involving belief in punishment (by God), or else some people at least will not do what is right.” (The idea is that although people may escape legal punishment here on earth, they cannot escape punishment by a perfectly knowing and just God when they die; and those who do not receive rewards they deserve on earth will receive those rewards when they die.)
That essay goes on to make other points, but in light of what I have written above — i.e., that punishment of you and your loved ones for doing a right act does not make your act wrong, and that avoidance of punishment through one’s actions do not make those actions right – it cannot be that the right act always brings about the most good (on earth), and it cannot be that even in my principle it does, if the harm avoided is undeserved or unfair punishment or the good achieved is undeserved or unfair favor.
In short, the problem is this: some cases of doing the greatest balance of good for the most deserving people seem to be right and others seem not to be – particularly in the case of avoiding unfair punishment. Utilitarianism cannot account for this distinction, and I don’t think that even my principle as stated above accounts properly for it.
Before I go on to discuss this further and to try to resolve it, let me contrast it with a different problem that seems possibly similar in a morally relevant way. I don’t know who first raised this problem, but it contrasts the following two scenarios: 1) a train is out of control and is headed to a fork where you have to either send it one way or another – if you send it one way, it will kill some innocent person that will be in its path on the track, but if you send it the other way, it will kill twenty people who are in its path on the track. What should you do (assuming no special knowledge of the supposed value of any of the lives involved, or assuming that all the lives are of equal moral value)? Utilitarianism and my principle both will say the right thing to do is to divert the train to run over the one person in order to save the twenty, not vice versa. 2) a train is traveling along a track and the engineer does not know that twenty people are stuck on that track ahead and will be killed unless the train is stopped. The only way to stop the train is by getting the engineers attention by throwing someone onto the track in front of the train, sacrificing that person. Utilitarianism demands throwing the person onto the track, but I don’t think my principle allows that, so I do not believe this problem is quite the same as the one of the Nazis or the captors of you and your friends or of undeserved punishment in general, in which I stand by the answer I gave above to the captors’ case. The people on the track have either put themselves in harm’s way or have been unluckily put there by others. Once that has happened, nothing can be done by anyone to save everyone (all 21 people), and you should save the most you can. However, in the second scenario, while it may be unfortunate that the twenty will die, there is not a person already in harm’s way who is in the same boat they are. You would have to sacrifice someone innocent who is not in harm’s way until you put him there. That would be wrong for you to do to him. At best you could in a saintly way sacrifice yourself to save the twenty, but you are not obligated to do that and you do not have the right to sacrifice the person who has done nothing to be in harm’s way. Even if someone else were to want to throw that person onto the track and you had the power to stop him from doing so, I think you have the obligation to stop him because it would violate that innocent person’s right to be sacrificed. The person already on the track is not “innocent” in the same way if he put himself in harm’s way, or at least is already in harm’s way in a manner that is not your fault and is beyond your control.
In the Nazi or truthful captors’ cases, utilitarianism says to sacrifice someone to save the greater number of others, but I am afraid my principle also does that too if it were to be interpreted normally in the way it is expressed. I don’t know any easy way to amend it other than to say that punishment and reward (or perhaps unfair punishment and unfair reward) should not count as a consideration in calculating the amount of harm avoided or the amount of good accomplished. That is, the harm suffered due to unfair punishment does not turn an otherwise right act into a wrong one. The only goods and harms that should count are ones that are in some sense a natural or unavoidable, intrinsic consequence of the act, not extrinsic ones which result from choices made by others in response to the act. That is why I write in The Abortion Debate that insofar as people want to minimize or end abortions, they should minimize or eliminate as much as possible the reasons and causes women choose to have them, rather than making punishment for them so Draconian that the woman’s best choice for herself is to cause a baby to be born if it in fact it really should not be because it will needlessly suffer in unredeemable and unjustifiably horrible ways. The point is to make having a baby be right for the sake of the baby, not make having it be right for the sake of the mother’s avoiding punishment if that is not really in the best interest of the baby or is not fair to the mother (as in making women have a baby that endangers their lives or that was conceived by rape for which they are not responsible).
Now normally, of course, we think that punishment is justified if it helps make someone do what is the right act in the first place. We thus threaten punishment in order to try to deter wrongdoing. But that only deters those who are egoists seeking their own best interests, not those who know they are actually seeking to do what is right but which we mistakenly think is wrong. I am not opposed to punishment, as I explain in “Justification of Punishment” but punishment needs to be either a deterrent or a penalty for doing acts that are wrong apart from the punishment, not for making right acts be or seem to be wrong. Similarly, rewards need to be an incentive for doing what is right apart from the reward, not an additional good consequence that makes a wrong act be or seem to be right.
So it seems to me that my general ethical principle needs to be amended to the following: An act is right if and only if, of any act open to the agent to do, its intrinsic or natural consequences, apart from any extrinsic unfair rewards or punishments, bring about the greatest good (or the least evil, or the greatest balance of good over evil) for the greatest number of deserving people, most reasonably and fairly distributed, as long as no rights or incurred obligations are violated, as long as the act does not try to inflict needless harm on undeserving people, as long as the act does not needlessly risk harm in a reckless, negligent, heedless, or irresponsible manner, and as long as the act and its consequences are fair or reasonable to expect of the agent.* Rights have to be justified or explained or demonstrated; not just anything called a right is actually a right.
Scenario 4: Let us take into consideration that the most effective non-permanent methods of birth control usually say on the labels that they are 99% effective. If this means such methods as condoms fail to contain semen 1 out of a 100 times, that if you use them with intercourse twice a week, they will fail once a year. Of course, the woman might not be fertile during those failures, except, 25% of the time, might result in an unwanted pregnancy on average once every four years with condoms; more frequently if sex is more frequent or at least more frequent during fertile times. Now suppose, that abortion is used as the backup means of birth control, and suppose that whenever abortion is used for that purpose, on average one in every 400 times that people all over the world had sex using 99% effective birth control, some innocent living adult died in his/her sleep who otherwise would not have died. Should sex of this sort, which is thus only for pleasure, be considered morally acceptable? Why or why not? Use the general ethical principle to support your response. ***NOTE***The question is NOT about whether abortion is right, but whether it is right to have sex or not if you would have an abortion for any resulting pregnancy as a means of birth control.
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Further, the amount of goodness created or evil prevented may, in some cases, be significant enough to legitimately override a right or incurred obligation that a lesser amount of good created or evil prevented may not. Overriding a right or incurred obligation is not the same as violating it.
*What is fair and reasonable to expect of an agent:
It is fair or reasonable for people to do things at little risk or cost to themselves that bring great benefit, prevent great harm, or create a much greater balance of benefit over harm, to others. Apart from cases where an agent has some special higher obligation that he has assumed or incurred, as the risk or cost to the agent increases and/or the benefit to others decreases, an agent is less obligated to perform the act. At some point along these scales, the obligation ceases altogether, though the act may be commendable or “saintly” to voluntarily perform (that is, it may be “over and above the call of duty”). At other points, the act may be so unfair to the agent — may be so self-sacrificing for the agent to perform, even if voluntary, and/or of so little benefit to deserving others, that it would be wrong. (Not every act of sacrifice or martyrdom is all right or acceptable.)
- Right acts consider many elements: best consequences, fairest and most reasonable distribution of burdens and benefits among deserving people affected, risk and severity of potential harm, intended harm (even if failed) to innocent people, what is fair and reasonable to expect of an agent, specially incurred obligations, rights and what they are and the difference between overriding both them and specially incurred obligations versus violating either. When these elements all point to the same act or option being right, there is little problem with ethical choices. Only when in a given situation the different elements give conflicting answers does it have to be decided which ones should prevail and how to weigh the importance of one element against the other(s).
- Consequentialist (also called ‘teleological’) principles and theories of ethics are those which hold that the overall good or harm of consequences are what make acts right or wrong.
- Non-consequentialist (also called deontological) principles and theories of ethics are those which hold that things other than consequences are what make acts right or wrong.
- Ethical Egoism is the principle that everyone should act in their own best interest
- Psychological Egoism is the view that everyone does act in their own perceived best interest and cannot do otherwise.
- Ethical hedonism is the principle that everyone should seek their own greatest happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, contentment.
- Psychological hedonism is the view that everyone does act to maximize their own greatest happiness and cannot do otherwise.
- Utilitarianism is the principle that all acts should do what causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
- Act utilitarianism is the form of utilitarianism that says right acts are those which individually do the greatest good for the greatest number.
- Rule utilitarianism is the form of utilitarianism that says right acts are those which conform to the rules that do the greatest good for the greatest number even if the individual act does not do the most good for the most people.
Chapter Review Questions
- Question: What are ethical egoism and ethical egoistic hedonism? And what are psychological egoism and psychological hedonism?
- Question: What is Utilitarianism?
- Question: Should the Golden Rule apply to personal relationship and love? Why or why not? Or if so, in what way; if not, in what way? Does the Golden Rule let you know what is right to do? Why or why not?